This winter, when you reach for a nice, perfectly-shaped tomato in the produce section of your local supermarket, think of Lucas Mariano Domingo. For two and a half years the Guatemalan lived in the back of a windowless box truck with three other men while he picked tomatoes in the fields surrounding the Florida community of Immokalee. The living quarters had no running water or toilet. His harvest crew supervisor charged Domingo for everything—he even had to pay $5 to stand naked in a yard with a garden hose to rinse sweat and pesticides off after a day in the fields.
Soon Domingo was hundreds of dollars in debt in a land far from his home. Some weeks he received no pay at all. Things got so bad, Domingo was beaten and locked up overnight to ensure he’d be available to pick tomatoes the next morning. He escaped, helping to launch an investigation that led to the crew supervisors being charged with violating the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was adopted almost 150 years ago. That’s the law that bans slavery.
This is just one of the horror stories food journalist Barry Estabrook tells in Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. After providing a brief horticultural and culinary history of America’s second most popular vegetable (behind lettuce), Estabrook dives into the meat of the matter: behind the modern tomato is a whole lot of misery.
From October to June, virtually every fresh-market, field-grown “love apple” sold in the U.S. and Canada comes from Florida, with its long growing season and good access to lucrative East Coast markets.
The author’s description of how the tomato business became so industrialized will be familiar to anyone who has followed the overall trend in agriculture in recent decades. A combination of corporate control, government policy and the “McDonaldization” of consumer culture has conspired to create a business dominated by fewer and fewer players who are not producing food anymore, but a cheap commodity. The result is abuse of the land, communities, people—even our taste buds.
But as Estabrook points out, tomatoes are a particularly disheartening story. For one thing, almost everyone agrees that the end product of all this industrialization is a supper table disaster: tasteless, low in nutrient value, hard enough to withstand a smack from a Louisville Slugger. But demand remains strong as eaters with short memories either confuse that February slicer with the garden-fresh tomato eaten last summer, or simply seek out “something red to have in the salad,” flavor be damned.
What makes the industrialization of tomatoes truly tragic are stories like Lucas Mariano Domingo’s. Producing tomatoes is extremely labor intensive, meaning it relies on immigrant workers who, like Domingo, often find themselves in desperate straits. The Florida tomato industry is dominated by a few giant firms, which then subcontract their fieldwork to crew supervisors who are under immense pressure to put as many tomatoes on northbound trucks as possible.
This system makes it possible for labor abuses to take place out of the public eye in a way that gives the big tomato growers plausible deniability. Cases of slavery have been so common in Florida’s tomato fields that a U.S. attorney for the state’s Middle District told Estabrook that any American who has eaten a winter tomato has dined on a vegetable “picked by the hand of a slave.”
To make things worse, it turns out that despite its long growing season, Florida is not a particularly good place to raise a crop of tomatoes. Its poor, sandy soil and high humidity make tomato production there extremely reliant on fertilizers and highly toxic pesticides. That means all those workers toiling in the fields are exposed to a terrifying mix of chemicals. In one region of Florida, the average incidence of birth defects among farm workers was at one point 13 percent, compared to 3 percent for the entire state.
In some cases, individual abuses in the industry have been addressed, thanks mostly to the efforts of groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a scrappy grassroots group that has forced Big Tomato to do everything from crack down on labor abuses to provide basic pesticide training. The Coalition has had impacts far and wide—the Land Stewardship Project recently participated in a campaign in Minnesota led by the Immokalee Workers to get the Chipotle Mexican Grill Company to sign an agreement ensuring better pay and working conditions for field workers.
But Estabrook points out that no matter how many smaller battles are won, this is an inherently dysfunctional industry. At one point, Tomatoland takes a side trip to a Pennsylvania farm where a highly-motivated entrepreneur produces tasty tomatoes for the New York market using fair labor practices and land-friendly methods. It’s a good model and a reminder that eaters can do their part by buying produce such as tomatoes in-season and getting to know the source of their food as much as possible.
The fact remains that there are a lot of Lucas Mariano Domingos out there, and we need to all get involved in reforming an industry that puts people like him at risk of being denied even those most basic of human needs: dignity and free will.
As one farmer advocate told Estabrook: “[We] have changed conditions for some workers, but we haven’t changed agriculture.”