'Tomatoland' Explores the Seedy Side of Florida's Tomato Industry

Right now, in the height of tomato season, it seems impossible to think that in just a few short weeks, all our gardens' bounty will be gone and we will once more be forced to turn to tasteless grocery store tomatoes for our culinary needs.

But that time will come. We'll complain about it, but we'll still buy them. Even if we don't, we'll still eat those bland blobs of red water when we dine in restaurants, whether we're eating fast-food hamburgers or country club chef salads or bruschetta in an upscale Italian place.

And that—our country's unquenchable demand for out-of-season tomatoes, no matter how lacking in flavor—is a huge problem, according to Barry Estabrook.

"[A]ny American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave," Estabrook writes in his engrossing new book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.

To be totally accurate, Estabrook is here paraphrasing what he was told by Douglas Molloy, a United States attorney in Florida, but the facts Estabrook lays out make for a compelling case. The price of those tasteless winter tomatoes is low at the supermarket, but, as it turns out, the human cost is unimaginable.

Estabrook first wrote about modern slavery on tomato farms in Immokalee, Fla., in the March 2009 issue of Gourmet magazine. That article later won a James Beard Award (kind of like the Pulitzer for food writers) and landed Estabrook a book deal.

I remember reading the piece when it was published and recoiling in horror; I also remember thinking it was way too short for Estabrook to present his case really well. Tomatoland, however, is 200 pages of research and documentation. It is a must-read for anyone interested in food, farming, or simply eating—and you will never look at the produce in your grocery store the same way.

But the strength of Estabrook's book, and the reason why I call it a must-read, is that it is not full of outrage, or entreaties to eat local, or even to boycott Florida tomatoes. Estabrook is first and foremost a journalist. Everything he writes about—whether the story of Lucas Mariano Domingo, an undocumented immigrant enslaved in Florida for three years earlier this decade, beaten and locked in the back of a truck when he was too sick to pick tomatoes, or that of Francisca Herrera, whose son Carlitos was born without arms or legs after she was exposed to pesticides while pregnant and working in the tomato fields—is presented without hysteria or drama or overwriting. The facts are horrifying enough on their own, and Estabrook states them without comment. He doesn't need to write, This is the price of your winter tomatoes—slavery and deformed babies. It's already clear.

Yet Estabrook's book is not simply an indictment of modern agriculture, or even agricultural practices in Florida. He gives a fascinating account of how tomatoes went from tiny, wild, bitter Peruvian berries to dominating American cooking. (Did you know some early American colonists thought tomato vines in one's sheets would get rid of bed bugs?) He details the rise of the Florida winter tomato industry in the 1880s, after an enterprising farmer discovered that if he shipped unripe tomatoes, they would survive the journey from Florida to New York with minimal damage. (Did you know winter Florida tomatoes are picked green and exposed to gas in a warehouse so that their skin turns red?)

Unlike any number of authors who have written about modern agricultural practices, Estabrook also does not give the agriculture industry short shrift. He talks to agricultural scientists working on finding a better tasting winter tomato. He talks to Florida farmers worried about losing ground to Mexican greenhouse (aka vine-ripe) tomatoes. He presents all sides of the story, with balance.

It is because Estabrook is that rare species, a food journalist who actually appreciates the complexity of the modern agricultural economy, that Tomatoland is such an important read. He doesn't give any pat, easy answers, nor does he suggest we should all start our own farms.

Estabrook does suggest that local, mostly organic farming and heirloom seeds might be the answer to many problems, such as tasteless tomatoes and poisonous herbicides, but he acknowledges there is no clear and simple solution. A giant sector of the Florida economy is not just going to up and walk away—and it seems that many of these issues are not solely the province of the tomato industry or of Florida farms (although they may be worse in both cases).

What Tomatoland does make clear is that out-of-season produce has a cost much higher than its sticker price. Estabrook may not write with outrage, but you'll be hard pressed to not feel any once you've finished his book.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong date for Estabrook's Gourmet article about Florida tomato farms. The story appeared in 2009, not 2008.