BY BARRY ESTABROOK
Estabrook, a freelance food writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Washington Post, looks at the life of today’s mass-produced tomato — and the environmental and human costs of the tomato industry — in his book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. The book was based on a James Beard Award-winning article that originally appeared in Gourmet magazine, where Estabrook was a contributing editor before publication ceased in 2009.
Estabrook says the mass-produced tomatoes in today’s supermarkets lack flavor because they were bred for enduring long journeys to the supermarket — and not for taste.
“As one large Florida farmer said, ‘I don’t get paid a single cent for flavor,’ ” says Estabrook. “He said, ‘I get paid for weight. And I don’t know of any supermarket shopper who tastes her tomatoes before she puts them in her shopping cart.’ … It’s not worth commercial plant breeders’ while to breed for taste because their customers — the large farmers — don’t get paid for it.”
As a result, customers have become accustomed to the flavorless tomatoes that dot supermarket shelves, says Estabrook.
“I was speaking to a person in their 30s recently and she said she had never recalled tasting anything other than a supermarket tomato,” he says. “I think that wanting a tomato in the winter of winter — or wanting a little bit of orange on the plate … is inherent in a lot of our shopping decisions. We expect an ingredient to be on the supermarket shelves 365 days a year, whether or whether not it’s in season or tastes any good.”
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off?
Though most of our tomatoes come from Florida, the state isn’t necessarily the best place to grow the crop, says Estabrook. Most tomatoes are grown in sand, which contains few nutrients and organic materials. In addition, Florida’s humidity breeds large populations of insects, which means tomato growers need to apply chemical pesticides on a weekly basis.
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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He currently blogs at politicsoftheplate.com.
“In order to get a successful crop of tomatoes, the official Florida handbook for tomato growers lists 110 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides that can be applied to a tomato field over the course of the growing season,” he says. “And many of those are what the Pesticide Action Network calls ‘bad actors’ — they’re kind of the worst of the worst in the agricultural chemical arsenal.”
Florida applies more than eight times the amount of pesticide and herbicides as does California, the next leading tomato grower in the country. Part of this has to do with the fact that California processes tomatoes that are used for canning — and therefore don’t have to look as good as their Florida counterparts. But part of this also has to do with consumers.
“It’s the price we pay for insisting we have food out of season and not local,” he says. “We foodies and people in the sustainable food movement chant these mantras, ‘local, seasonable, organic, fair-trade, sustainable,’ and they almost become meaningless because they’re said so often and you see them in so many places. If you strip all those away, they do mean something, and what they mean is that you end up with something like a Florida tomato in the winter — which is tasteless.”
More On Tomatoes
On tomato nutrition today versus 40 years ago
“My mother, in the ’60s could buy a tomato in the supermarket that had 30 to 40 percent more vitamin C and way more niacin and calcium. The only area that the modern industrial tomato beats its Kennedy-administration counterpart is in sodium.”
On working conditions on tomato farms
“Of the legal jobs available, picking tomatoes is at the very bottom of the economic ladder. I came into this book chronicling a case of slavery in southwestern Florida that came to light in 2007 and 2008. And it was shocking. I’m not talking about near-slavery or slavery-like conditions. I’m talking about abject slavery. These were people who were bought and sold. These were people who were shackled in chains at night or locked in the back of produce trucks with no sanitary facilities all night.
“These were people who were forced to work whether they wanted to or not and if they didn’t, they were beaten severely. If they tried to escape, they were either beaten worse or in some cases, they were killed. And they received little or no pay. It sounds like 1850. … There have been seven [legal cases] in the last 10 or 15 years … successfully brought to justice in Florida involving slavery. And 1,200 people have been freed. The U.S. Attorney for the district in Southern Florida claims that that just represents a tiny, tiny tip of an iceberg because it’s extraordinarily difficult to prosecute a modern-day slavery case.”
On undocumented workers
“I’ve seen estimates that nationally, 70 percent of the low-ranking farmworkers are undocumented people from southern Mexico and Central America. These people arrive in this country — they’re often shipped here from their home villages — and they arrive in a land where they certainly don’t speak English. Many of them don’t speak Spanish because they’re indigenous so they’re more comfortable in these indigenous languages.
“They’re stuck in the middle of the Everglades in some trailer camp. They don’t know where they are. They’re frightened to go to the police because they’re here illegally and also because back home, the police are often thugs and you don’t want to go to them anyway. So they’re completely vulnerable. They don’t want to make any noise — they just want to work, make a bit of money and that leaves them totally vulnerable.”
On how the Florida tomato industry is improving working conditions
“There’s a group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) that’s named after a small city in Florida. And the CIW is this loose, grass-roots collection of people who’ve been working, really since 1993, to improve labor conditions. The growers had steadfastly refused to as much as speak to these people until last November when the growers came forward and said ‘OK, we will sign off on what’s called the fair food agreement,’ which gives the workers the right to get an extra penny per pound of tomatoes they pick. They’re paid on a piece basis. A penny a pound — big deal. But that’s the difference between making $40-$50 a day and $70-$80 a day for a tomato worker — the difference between barely able to feed your family, if that, to a crummy, but OK wage. In addition to that, there are such radical concepts as time clocks in the fields … the requirement that they put up tarpaulins so there can be a shady area in these fields where people can have lunch and other breaks, which is also a new concept.”
HOW MODERN INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE DESTROYED OUR MOST ALLURING FRUIT
BY BARRY ESTABROOK
HARDCOVER, 240 PAGES
ANDREWS MCMEEL PUBLISHING
LIST PRICE: $19.99
In Vermont, where I live, as in much of the rest of the United States, a gardener can select pretty much any sunny patch of ground, dig a small hole, put in a tomato seedling, and come back two months later and harvest something. Not necessarily a bumper crop of plump, unblemished fruits, but something. When I met Monica Ozores-Hampton, a vegetable specialist with the University of Florida, I asked her what would happen if I applied the same laissez-faire horticultural practices to a tomato plant in Florida. She shot me a sorrowful, slightly condescending look and replied, “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” I asked.
“There would be nothing left of the seedling,” she said. “Not a trace. The soil here doesn’t have any nitrogen, so it wouldn’t have grown at all. The ground holds no moisture, so unless you watered regularly, the plant would certainly die. And, if it somehow survived, insect pests, bacteria, and fungal diseases would destroy it.” How can it be, then, that Florida is the source for one-third of the fresh tomatoes Americans eat? How did tomatoes become the Sunshine State’s most valuable vegetable crop, accounting for nearly one-third of the total revenue generated?
From a purely botanical and horticultural perspective, you would have to be an idiot to attempt to commercially grow tomatoes in a place like Florida. The seemingly insurmountable challenges start with the soil itself. Or more accurately, the lack of it. Although an area south of Miami has limestone gravel as a growing medium, the majority of the state’s tomatoes are raised in sand. Not sandy loam, not sandy soil, but pure sand, no more nutrient rich than the stuff vacationers like to wiggle their toes into on the beaches of Daytona and St. Pete. “A little piece of loam or clay would go a long way,” said Ozores-Hampton. “But, hello? — this is just pure sand.” In that nearly sterile medium, Florida tomato growers have to practice the equivalent of hydroponic production, only without the greenhouses.
Because of the state’s benign weather, disease-causing organisms and insects do not die from the frosts, blizzards, and subzero cold snaps that kill bugs and pathogens every winter in colder growing areas. Basking in the same balmy climate as the state’s active retirees, Florida’s pests, fungi, and bacteria stay vigorous and healthy yearround, just waiting to attack the next crop of tomatoes. Those endlessly sunny winter days that the state’s tourism agency likes to tout in its advertisements also pack high levels of humidity the promoters prefer not to mention. Not so comfortable for humans, humidity is ideal for the growth of blights, wilts, spots, and molds. Hardy native weeds like nut grass (“called that because it can drive you nuts,” one farmer told me) can easily out-compete tomato plants. Some weeds are so tough they can punch through plastic mulch laid down to suppress them. The renowned sunshine also means that rain is patchy in the winter months. Because sand retains almost no water, tomatoes have to be irrigated. And even though the daytime skies may be clear and bright, Florida is still in the Northern Hemisphere and days are short in the winter. A tomato growing in South Florida in late December gets only a little over ten and a half hours of sunlight a day, whereas one growing in New Jersey in June gets fifteen hours — nearly 50 percent more. Shorter days mean less vigorous growth. A tomato trying to grow in Florida also experiences debilitating temperature swings that a tomato in California or Ohio never has to face. As many a disappointed vacationer has learned, a stretch of eighty-five-degree beach days can be broken overnight by one of the notorious cold fronts that frequently blow across the state, dropping temperatures into the forties, thirties, and even lower. Add to all that the occasional hurricane that flattens the staked tomatoes and the all-too-frequent January or February frost that leaves thousands of acres of vines blackened and dead, and you have to ask: Why bother trying to grow something as temperamental as a tomato in such a hostile environment?
The answer has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with money. Florida just happens to be warm enough for a tomato to survive at a time of year when the easily accessed population centers in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, with their hordes of tomato-starved consumers, are frigid, their fields frozen solid under carpets of snow. But for tomatoes to survive long enough to take advantage of that huge potential market, Florida growers have to wage what amounts to total war against the elements. Forget the Hague Convention: We’re talking about chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare against the forces of nature.
In tomato agribusiness’s campaign to defend their crop from the powers that would otherwise destroy a tomato field, Ozores-Hampton, who came from her native Chile to the University of Florida in the mid-1990s to do graduate work, is a key ally. She is an anomaly in the managerial and academic ranks of Florida’s tomato industry. She is not only a woman (rare enough) but an energetic, forceful, extremely fit Latina in her forties who spends her workdays toiling in the hot sun of her tomato test plots in rural areas populated by self-proclaimed red necks and crackers, then hops in her car Friday evenings and spins off to her pied-à-terre in Miami’s trendy South Beach district. Almost every other non-field worker I encountered in the tomato business was white, male, and sporting at the very least a few gray hairs and/or nurturing a developing paunch, the type of guy you’d encounter on a Saturday on a golf course or in a bass boat. “They all call me ‘the Tomato Lady,'” Ozores-Hampton said. “Everyone knows who that is.”
For someone who does not fit the mold of Tomatoland’s Good Ole Boys’ Club, Ozores-Hampton has been given tremendous responsibilities. Her territory encompasses most of the state south of Tampa. She is the only university horticulturalist serving an area that has 180,000 acres of vegetables (more than half the state’s vegetable acreage). That land generates annual revenues of $1.6 billion to farmers. She is so important to the industry that when her postdoctoral work ended, a group of growers approached the president of the cash-strapped University of Florida and offered to help fund her fulltime, tenure-track position for four years. Ozores-Hampton’s specialty is soil nutrients. She studies the cycles of plant, soil, and water interaction to determine the optimal level at which fertilizers should be applied so as to maximize production, leaving as little surplus nitrogen and potassium in the soil as possible. Excess fertilizer is a costly waste for farmers and pollutes groundwater, lakes, and rivers that feed such environmentally delicate habitats as the Everglades and Florida Bay. On the March morning that I dropped into her lab/offices in the university’s Southwest Florida Research & Education Center near Immokalee, several of Ozores-Hampton’s assistants were upending bushel-size plastic tubs of bright green tomatoes onto lab benches. She explained that they were doing evaluations of different varieties that day to see which were the most productive. “It’s the cornerstone of agriculture anywhere in the world,” she said. “If you don’t start with the right varieties, you are not going to succeed.”
When I told her I had come hoping to gain an understanding of how the tomatoes that find their way into the nation’s supermarkets and fast food outlets are grown, she gestured toward an empty office off to one side of the lab. “You’ve come to the right place,” she said, sitting me down as if I were one of her less promising undergrads. “If you want to understand how we grow tomatoes, you have to start at the end of the last harvest, which around here is in April.” She explained that during the summer, a farmer can do three things with his land. Some growers put in cover crops like sorghum and sudangrass, which incorporate a little organic material into the soil and out-compete any weeds that spring up. Cover crops also disrupt the cycle of pathogens and nematodes (microscopic worms that destroy tomatoes’ roots) by putting a different species into rotation with what would otherwise be a monocrop — tomato after tomato after tomato. In addition, cover crops serve to capture and store the nitrogen and other fertilizers left behind after the growing season. Instead of using cover crops, farmers can also simply leave the fields fallow. Weeds come up, and they use the herbicide Roundup to kill the weeds. Still other growers choose to flood the fields, drowning weeds, pathogens, and nematodes.
Whatever route a grower chooses, the land lies fallow for sixty to ninety days. By July, it’s time to start preparing for the next season’s crop. Step one is all but identical to the first stage of erecting yet another Florida condo development or shopping mall. Heavy equipment removes all traces of vegetation, leaving a perfectly flat, dry rectangle of pristine sand. Before anything else can happen, that sand has to be watered somehow. And fortunately, water is one area where nature gives Florida farmers a break. Although rain can be unpredictable in the winter, the state is awash in ground water and crisscrossed with canals and ditches meant to drain that water from what would otherwise be swampland.
“Good thing, too,” Ozores-Hampton said, “or you and I would be sitting underwater right now.” The shallow layer of sand sits atop impermeable “hard pan,” made up of clay and compacted organic matter. Some farmers use traditional drip irrigation, where hoses with small holes are run between plants to deliver a trickle of water, but most growers in South Florida employ a system unique to the area called “seepage irrigation.” They simply pump water into canals and ditches that cross their fields. The water sinks down to the impermeable hard pan, and with nowhere else to go, seeps outward, moistening the sand from below. If a heavy rain falls, the farmer pumps water out of his field back into a larger canal, lowering the water level beneath his plants’ roots and maintaining optimum moisture. “To do this type of irrigation, you have to have water, you have to have sandy soil, and you have to have an impermeable layer to keep that water from draining away,” said Ozores-Hampton. South Florida is the only agricultural area in the world that has such conditions.
Excerpted from Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook/Andrews McMeel Publishing.
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Florida workers harvest what they can from the DiMare Farms tomato fields, a month after the January 2010 freeze that caused a statewide crop shortage.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
If you bite into a tomato between the months of October and June, chances are that tomato came from Florida. The Sunshine State accounts for one-third of all fresh tomatoes produced in the United States — and virtually all of the tomatoes raised during the fall and winter seasons.
But the tomatoes grown in Florida differ dramatically from the red garden varieties you might grow in your backyard. They’re bred to be perfectly formed — so that they can make their way across the U.S. and onto your dinner table without cracking or breaking.
“For the last 50 or more years, tomato breeders have concentrated essentially on one thing and that is yield — they want plants that yield as many or as much as possible,” writer Barry Estabrook tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “They also want those fruits to be able to stand up to being harvested, packed, artificially turned orange [with ethylene gas] and then shipped away and still be holding together in the supermarket a week or 10 days later.”
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