Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook is really two books that co-exist uneasily in the same binding.
Book one: For foodies
One is a book for foodies and deals with the question of why so many store-bought tomatoes are so relatively tasteless.
This book covers the first 35 pages and the last 73. Its focus is on the methods used by growers in sunny Florida to produce tons of tomatoes each winter to ship north to frigid and often snow-bound markets. These tomatoes have been created to be attractive, large and able to handle a lot of handling before ending up on a diner’s plate — all so that those diners don’t have to go an entire season or more without the foodstuff.
The Florida growers work on a business model that is only marginally profitable. That’s why the tomatoes are fashioned to be hardy and, in terms of shipping, to be able to go the extra mile.
In the latter part of this book, Estabrook examines some new strains of tomato that, although a bit uglier, may be able to lead to better-tasting versions reaching the northern markets.
The bottom-line problem, though — the relative tastelessness of tomatoes — seems to be something of a non-problem inasmuch as tons upon tons of the foodstuff are bought each winter in the northern markets, regardless of taste.
For whatever reason, American consumers seem to have decided that they want the red round tomato as part of their salads all through the year, if only for the color.
Book two: The outrage
The other book in Tomatoland has to do with the appalling treatment that the Florida growers accord their migrant, mostly Latino workers — exposure to toxic chemicals that have caused birth defects in some of their babies, slavery to unscrupulous crew bosses, backbreaking working conditions and penny-ante pay.
In this way, Estabrook’s book is similar to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which detailed the exploitation of immigrant workers in the Chicago Stock Yards in the first decade of the 20th century.
Like Tomatoland, The Jungle was the result of investigative journalism. The difference, though, is that Sinclair’s book brought to light abuses that hadn’t been widely publicized.
By contrast, Estabrook’s discussion — which covers pages 35 to 120 — stands on the shoulders of other reporters, activists and prosecutors.
In addition, while the abuses that Sinclair described were unchecked and pervasive, it appears that many of the most horrific of worker mistreatment have been stopped or, at least, lessened.
Even so, I’m certain abuses remain. The story that Sinclair told and that Estabrook now tells is one that has been repeated through this country and elsewhere in the world since the Industrial Revolution.
Worker exploitation is always an option that business owners are tempted with. And, today, when the strength and power of unions is waning, more and more people find themselves being squeezed, dehumanized and degraded by their bosses.
The experience of the tomato workers in Florida is an object lesson to all Americans that unchecked capitalism is a danger to everyone not in the president’s office.
Patrick T. Reardon