Barry Estabrook on the high cost of cheap tomatoes

Author of Tomatoland dishes the dirt on Florida’s agricultural aberration

Barry Estabrook on the high cost of cheap tomatoes
Rob Bartlett

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit

By Barry Estabrook
Andrews McMeel Publishing
240 pages

Anyone who has ever bitten into a sandwich and, on second thought, removed that sad, pink, watery slice of tomato will appreciate Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook’s new book about Florida’s tomato trade. Estabrook’s detective work started years ago on the road in South Florida. As he was driving behind a produce truck, he saw a bright green fruit break free, strike the highway and emerge intact. The food writer was shocked to see that this was a tomato, usually a soft, red fruit that splits and oozes at the slightest rough handling.

The mysterious tomato led Estabrook from South Florida farms to rural Peru in search of answers. In his travels, Estabrook discovered that year-round demand for the summer fruit has created a troubled tomato industry in Florida. Farmers pump the soil full of pesticides to combat the challenges of our inhospitably humid climate, and, since vine-ripened tomatoes are too delicate to withstand cross-country shipment, they’re picked well before they’re ripe and gassed with ethylene to turn them red. In Tomatoland, Estabrook uncovers a trade fueled by low prices and, alarmingly, incidents of slave labor – all here in the Sunshine State. We called Barry at his Vermont home for some answers of our own.

Orlando Weekly: I’ve been reading interviews that you’ve done for the book and reviews of the book, and you’ve likened your relationship to tomatoes to Proust and his madeleine. Can you describe that association?

Barry Estabrook: Well, I’m talking about a good tomato, a real garden-ripe tomato – not a winter tomato. Proust tasted a madeleine, and it brought back all these memories to him. Tomatoes are a thing that I really do associate with pleasant memories from when I was younger. My father was a businessman who spent a lot of time traveling around the country, and I wasn’t a great athlete or anything, but the one thing we sort of bonded over were tomatoes. Wherever we lived and whatever the circumstances were, he’d plant a few tomatoes – half a dozen tomato plants. I can remember their smell. I remember the leaves, and their little white roots when he took them out of the container to transplant them. I remember in the heat of summer pulling a few tomatoes off the vine and eating them, and then bringing some in and serving them with a little salt and pepper. And mayonnaise.

The way you talk about it, about how you can taste all the elements in the tomato, sounds like drinking wine.

A good tomato, to me, is like a good red wine. Its flavors are very, very complex. That’s what I like. The sweetness and the tartness play off of each other, and all the other elements that are in a good-tasting tomato are very similar to drinking a good burgundy.

In 2009 you published “The Price of Tomatoes,” an article about migrant slavery in South Florida tomato fields, in Gourmet magazine. The book is equally concerned with the taste of the tomatoes themselves. So how did this interest come about?

I first got interested in tomatoes because there were issues around the flavor. Years ago that tomato came flying at me off the truck. It hit I-75 at 60 miles per hour and I thought, ‘My god! These are the things that grow at home in my garden … but here they’re these rock-hard things that are hitting me at 60 miles an hour without suffering any harm!’ So that’s the way that I came into it, and it was doing that that brought my attention to the labor issues. Before I realized all the labor practices existed, I [wondered] what has industrial farming done to this thing, from a flavor point of view, from a gastronomical point of view?

If Florida is such a hostile environment for tomatoes, then why are we growing them here? And what are Florida farmers doing to enable these tomato crops?

The reason you’re growing them there has nothing to do with horticulture and botany, and everything to do with commerce. You load a trailer up and in two days that’ll be in a supermarket or warehouse in two-thirds of the country – from the East to the Midwest. That’s the only reason they’d ever grow tomatoes in a place like Florida. The problems start with the weather – the humidity.

The tomato’s wild ancestors are a desert plant. They love dry, sunny weather. They hate humidity, as anyone trying to grow them in the garden in Florida will know. They’re susceptible to all sorts of funguses and wilts and rusts. There are blights and all manner of insects all year round. So from that point of view, Florida is the wrong place to grow tomatoes. In the parts of the state that tomatoes are grown, they’re grown in the sand, which has no more nutrients than the sand on Daytona Beach. Everything the plant needs, all the nutrients, have to be put in the sand and sealed under plastic.

So they plant the tomatoes in this hostile sand, which doesn’t have very many nutrients, and then they cover it with plastic.

Well, before they growers do anything, they go along and create the rows in the sand, and then they inject methyl bromide, which is a fumigant which kills every living organism in the soil – every germ, every bug, every bacteria. Then they put the plastic over the plants at that point to keep the bromide in there for a couple of weeks to do its job. They also put fertilizer in. After a couple of weeks, when the soil is sterile – dead – they then poke holes in the plastic and put seedlings in.

If they’re putting all these deadly chemicals into the ground to kill everything in the soil, is there any chance that the tomato plants will pick up traces of those chemicals?

The USDA has found … traces of more than 30 different agricultural chemicals – I’m talking about pesticides – in supermarket tomatoes. So there are more than 30 pesticides on slightly more than half the tomatoes tested by the FDA. They have residues on them. They say that it’s not a level that’s going to hurt you.

So these pesticides are found on the skin of the tomatoes, and we can at least get the comfort that we’re washing part of that off. But are we really washing all of it off?

According to the officials [the chemicals] are in quantities that are below those which would hurt you. They’re there, but in quantities below the threshold of being toxic … to consumers. It’s a different story if you’re in the fields picking the tomatoes.

Fresh tomatoes have to be picked by hand. Machines can pick canning tomatoes, but that will bruise the fruit. What kind of lifestyle are these pickers facing?

The people who pick tomatoes are at the very, very bottom of the last rung of the working poor in the U.S. You may be able to get a crummier-paying job, although I can’t think of one offhand, or you can get a harder or more dangerous job, but you’re not going to find one that combines all three in the way that tomato harvesting does. They average about $10,000 to $12,000 a year.

For a lot of hours.

Yeah, but they never know. They have to be on call every day, but they might not be called. If it rains they’re sunk, and if there’s been heavy dew, they’ll keep them out in the fields until the dew dries. Also, it seems to happen almost every year now – you get a freeze, and that puts them out of work for six weeks. And on and on. So it’s erratic work that comes in fits and starts. They have to be there. They have to be available for when tomatoes need to be picked.

You cited incomes of $10,000 to $12,000 a year, but you write in the book that many pickers in Immokalee, an impoverished town near Miami, were actually working themselves into debt in a form of slavery.

It’s not a form of slavery – it’s abject slavery. ... These people were bought and sold. They were kept shackled in chains at night and were beaten if they didn’t work hard enough or if they tried to get away. It was just like 1850 slavery. The debts were totally bogus.

Then there are workers who are sort of one rung over slavery, who are in debt to somebody who provided them with transportation to Immokalee from Mexico. So they may not be legally slaves, but they’re working to pay off a transportation fee. There are others who are simply forced to live in horrible shacks or trailers and pay exorbitant rent. Sometimes all they can do is meet the rent.

So I guess they are not slaves, but they’re not able to support themselves sometimes, let alone their families.

Right, it’s a scam.

Yes, exactly.

It seems like pickers are mostly migrant workers. While out researching this book, did you get an idea of how many of the workers are here without documents?

The National Farmworkers Association has an official figure of 70 percent as undocumented. That’s farmworkers overall. The whole industry is dependent on workers who are not properly documented. It’s intentional. If you don’t have the proper documentation, you’re not going to go running to the cops or screaming about somebody shorting you on your hours. And if you are documented, why are you working in the tomato industry? You can get any other job. You can get a job at McDonald’s – a minimum-wage job where you know you’re going to get minimum wage every day. You could work in landscaping. So it’s really a business built on people who are desperate for work.

Our governor, Rick Scott, ran on a hard-line anti-immigration stance. He’s since taken heat for backing down. Might this have anything to do with agriculture companies and migrant workers?

He may have taken a look across the border at what’s happening in Georgia. Florida’s agricultural sector is huge. [In Georgia] you have a situation where they had enacted one of these crazy laws, and right now there’s $300 million lost so far, with crops rotting in the fields because the workers simply – well, they are nothing if not migrant.

So the workers just skipped Georgia. Do you know much about the specifics of those laws?

Well, it’s very similar – I haven’t read the bill – but it’s modeled after the one in Arizona, which means that if a police officer stops someone for whatever reason, and suspects they may not be a legal resident, the officer is supposed to ask for proof that they’re a legal resident. That’s one of the main thrusts [of the law]. It would also hold employers accountable if people were working on their farms without proper documentation. But the thorniest issue is the traffic-stop issue. The police can demand that you prove your status. I don’t think it would happen to me if I got pulled over – I don’t think I’d have to prove my status as 59-year-old Caucasian. If I was a 30-year-old Hispanic man …

[Editor’s note: As of press time, the provisions of Georgia’s House Bill 87 calling for police-operated immigration checks and employer penalties, originally set to pass July 1, were being disputed in court.]

Can migrant workers get any kind of visas?

There are [H-2A] guest visas, which are like tickets to exploitation. Some of the worst exploitation and slavery cases in the country have been with people on these guest worker visas. Remember that huge case in Hawaii? People from Thailand – all guest workers. The problem is that you can’t leave the farmer who hired you. So it’s not like you can leave Farmer Joe, who underpays and doesn’t house you properly, to work for Farmer Smith. So that’s not a solution. [The guest worker visa] ties you to one person, and if he chooses to be abusive, what are you going to do?

[Ed. note: The Hawaii case Estabrook refers to involved a modern-day slavery ring operated from 2004 to 2005 by six people working for Global Horizons Manpower. Some 400 guest workers from Thailand paid recruitment fees and went into debt in pursuit of steady, well-paying jobs in Hawaii. AHawaii News Now report from Sept. 3, 2010, states that the indictment, released on Sept. 1, 2010, “alleges that the recruiters paid less than what they promised, did not honor their employment contracts, and took away the workers’ passports so they couldn’t escape.”]

Tomatoland describes the push by Coalition of Immokalee Workers for a 1-cent increase in the price of tomatoes. Can you explain the economics of that?

Years ago when the CIW first started, they first tried to get the farmers to pay [the pickers] more. The farmers said, “We can’t, we’re getting clobbered by the people buying from us, they want lower prices and lower prices.” … One tomato grower suggested, “OK, so what if we were to go to the end buyer and say to them, ‘You pay something directly to the workers.’ It doesn’t cost the farmer anything more, and it costs the buyer an extra penny [per pound].” After years of demonstrations, Taco Bell finally agreed. More and more, one by one, all the big fast-food chains came aboard and agreed to pay an extra penny a pound. However, it wasn’t until last November that the tomato growers agreed as an organization to be a conduit for these extra pennies. It’s not costing the farmer anything, but until last November, there was no way to get the money to the workers because the farmers wouldn’t cooperate. Now they’ve come aboard and it’s really changing. They’re adversaries that are working together with the coalition people and the harvesters. The supermarkets aren’t playing along. Whole Foods is the only supermarket that has played along – all the others won’t. None of the other chains have signed on. It’s the difference between $50 and $80 a day for a picker. One penny a pound. So it’s huge money to them.

Why can’t big agriculture afford to pay more for labor?

[The] Florida tomato industry has been engaged in market-share war for decades. The farms are smaller than the big billion-dollar corporations they sell to. The Walmart buyer wants cheap tomatoes. The only real place they can cut costs is with the workers. The pay for farmworkers hasn’t changed since the ’80s.

You wrote in Tomatoland about Immokalee workers suffering health problems and birth defects possibly connected to pesticide exposure. How did you discover what was going on at Lake Apopka here in Orlando?

I was talking with Jeannie Economos at the Farmworker Association of Florida in Apopka. She is their pesticide specialist. I was talking to her generally about pesticides and how they affected farmworkers in Florida. She suggested I come up and take what she calls a “pesticide tour.” There was a group of students from one of the local colleges, and Jeannie took us on a tour of the area and explained what’s happened.

Have the workers been affected by pesticides?

The trouble is … the government spent millions of dollars researching the pesticides’ effect on alligators and birds. In the case of the birds, they would die upon landing in the water. Alligators had severe reproductive changes. But the government, to date, hasn’t spent a cent to determine [pesticide effects on] the farmworkers.

They’re suffering a host of illnesses – endocrine effects and birth defects traced to pesticide exposure. No one has studied the workers. There’s no proof, because they haven’t done studies. Birth defect rates are four times higher [in farmworkers] than the rest of Florida birth defects. [Farmworkers] suffer from diseases caused by the pesticides they were exposed to over the decades. The thing that is different about Apopka is, well, most farmworkers are migrant or temporarily in the workforce. The turnover in the workforce is 30 or 40 percent a year. So there’s no way to ascertain the long-term, chronic effects of pesticide exposure – what’s going to happen in 20 years. In Apopka, there’s a primarily African-American community who have stayed after the farming ended. So here you have one case where you do have the possibility to get the whole pesticide story.

Have there been any studies since you completed your book?

The Farmworker Association commissioned a study – a survey – that showed information on how they’re experiencing problems. There was going to be half a million [dollars] set aside in your state budget for a clinical study – less than a third of what was spent on the alligators – but Gov. Scott vetoed it a couple months ago.

Lake Apopka used to be an attraction, right?

At one point it was nationally renowned. There were more than 20 resorts on the edge of the lake for fishermen because it was legendary for largemouth bass. During World War II, they built a dike across a portion of the lake and drained a chunk of it for muck farms. They would farm the stuff on the former bottom of the lake. When growing season was over they’d open the floodgates and flood the lake, and the water picked up the pesticide residues. Then they’d pump the lake dry again. They’d have another growing season and repeat the process. Fertilizers caused the water to lose all its oxygen. Pesticides built up over time and killed everything except these gnarly little minnows.

What are practical steps people can take to change the way they eat for the better?

The closer your tomato is raised to your kitchen counter, the better it’s going to be. It’s not as easy in Florida, but there are small farms … [or] grow your own tomatoes. When fresh, good tomatoes are available, make pasta sauces and freeze them. I live in Vermont. We have fresh tomatoes six weeks a year if we’re lucky – from August until it freezes some time in September. And I usually make a pig of myself eating fresh tomatoes three times a day.

But in America we have a way of thinking that we can get all produce at all times.

That’s the root of the problem – of a lot of problems. It’s very key. So many of the problems of the Florida tomato industry are because it’s a business designed to provide us in the North with a year-round supply of tomatoes. [As] consumers, we keep buying them, but survey after survey that I came across showed that we’re very dissatisfied with them. Out-of-season tomatoes are at the bottom of produce items in terms of satisfaction.

What about farmers markets? You recently wrote in The Atlantic that “it’s getting harder and harder to be an elitist these days about food.” You found that farmers markets are less expensive than we may think.

I focused on one study, but in fact there were at least two other studies that I had looked at saying the same thing. One was in Iowa and the other in Seattle. What they did was go to a farmers market and compare prices on a dozen items, and then walk over to a nearby supermarket and compare the same items. In many, many cases the farmers markets were cheaper. I’ve not seen the opposite studies done. It’s a myth that’s been fostered somehow. I’m not really sure [how]. It’s not really based on financial reality, as far as I can see.

Thanks so much for your time, Barry.

Don’t go swimming in Lake Apopka.