Tuesday, July 12, 2011


One of the keys to eating these days is to strictly avoid knowing too much about where your food comes from. My last blog about modern pork-growing made that point, as have numerous books and documentaries like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the documentary Food, Inc., both of which show us the horrors of industrial meat growing. The latest addition to these nightmares is Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, by former editor of Gourmet Magazine, Barry Estabrook. The book has been showing up on radio shows recently, like NPR’s All Things Considered, and Terry Gross’ Fresh Air. I heard a segment on ATC the other day, and though we’ve all known for years that supermarket tomatoes, especially in winter, taste like wax, we didn’t know the whole gory story. Estabrook provides the details and it may make you swear off fresh tomatoes forever, except for those that come from your own garden.

That indeed, is how Estabrook starts out, reminding us that even in Vermont where he lives, he can take a patch of ground, put in a tomato seedling, and a couple of months later harvest something that tastes like a tomato. Then he notes that he recently asked Monica Ozores-Hampton, the chief guru for tomato farmers in Florida, what would happen if this same procedure were applied in Florida, and she simply replied “Nothing.” When Estabrook pressed her, she added:

“There would be nothing left of the seedling, 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.” (quoted from excerpt of Tomatoland, (http://www.npr.org/2011/06/28/137371975/how-industrial-farming-destroyed-the-tasty-tomato )
And yet, one-third of all the fresh tomatoes grown in the U.S. are grown in Florida. How could this be? As Estabrook himself says, given the soil conditions—Florida’s tomatoes are grown on pure sand, in an environment rife with tons of bacteria and other “pests” that if left alone (the lack of winter allows them to multiply like fleas) would make mince-meat of a tomato crop—you would have to be an “idiot” to try growing tomatoes commercially in Florida. So, again, why are tomatoes Florida’s most valuable—in money terms, that is, amounting to about $1.5 billion annually--crop?

That’s what Estabrook’s book is about. And the story he tells is as revolting as the parallel stories about the American way of growing pigs, or cattle, or chickens or corn or any other industrial crop. That’s because tomatoes in Florida have to be virtually manufactured. Estabrook uses another metaphor, to convey what Florida growers must do to overcome soil with no nutrients or water, and teeming with insects and fungi—total war:

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 truth, the metaphor of “total war against nature” pretty much describes all large-scale agriculture in the United States because that is what has happened in this country since World War II. Farming, small family farming that is, once the backbone of our great democracy (forgetting slavery and a few other problems), took its cue from the total war of WWII, and became a chemicalized, machine-dominated pursuit that only huge agribusinesses could compete in. The growing of tomatoes in Florida is a perfect type case (though if you look into wheat, soy or corn farming in the Midwest these days, you’d see equally revolting instances of the same paradigm.)

In the tomato case, though, it’s even more manufactured due to the soil. Because where the prairies of the Midwest, at one time, consisted of huge expanses of rich, virgin soil, Florida’s terrain is pretty much sand. To turn sand into a growing medium, you have to add a few things: water, for one. But of course, sand won’t hold water, so the growers adopt the technique of flooding entire areas with some of the abundant ground water in Florida. It’s called “seepage irrigation” and it involves pumping huge quantities of water into the canals and ditches that cross farmers’ fields, letting the water seep down into the impermeable hard pan that underlies the sand, and letting the water “seep outward, moistening the sand from below.” Only in Florida could such irrigation be done because it has the necessary ingredients: sand for soil and that impermeable hard pan to keep the water from draining even further down.

After water, the next problem with sand is its lack of nutrients. This is where U of Florida Prof. Ozores-Hampton comes in. Originally from Chile, her specialty is soil nutrients and “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” (so as to minimize costly waste as well as complaints about polluting groundwater, lakes and rivers in Florida’s vulnerable habitats like the Everglades). And if you were wondering just how much and how many fertilizer and chemical nutrients are required to make sand yield tomatoes, Estabrook has an answer: a lot. Some comes from cover crops planted in the off-season (the normal growing season of spring to summer); some comes from the laboratory. But that’s only the beginning; there are also those pesky bacteria and fungi thriving in Florida’s year-round warmth and humidity to keep under control. In an interview Estabrook noted that Florida “applies more than 8 times the amount of pesticide and herbicides as does California, the next leading tomato grower.” He added:

“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. 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.”

So you’ve got chemicals for nutrients and chemicals to kill all the buggies that want to eat those nutrients, and then chemicals (ethylene gas) to fumigate the green, rock-hard tomatoes (growers have been breeding rock-hard tomatoes for years, at first so they could be picked by machine) that result so that they’ll turn orange or red at the proper time (they are required to keep for at least 10 days from the time they’re picked), and voila—picture-perfect, firm, tomatoes…that taste like plastic. But not to worry about the taste: as Estabrook explains, growers reason that they’re not paid to grow tasty tomatoes; they’re paid to grow tomatoes that will look good for as long as possible to taste-deaf American consumers.

All this, of course, says nothing about the temporary labor force required to pick all these tomatoes. Estabrook doesn’t mince words here. Describing the Mexicans and Guatemalans who make up this labor force, he says outright that it’s slavery:

“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.”

Of course, the growers have recently caved in to demands from a workers’ association (with prior pressure from Taco Bell, alarmed at the bad publicity slavery generates) to provide the workers with a penny more per pound picked, and even some tarps to provide the poor bastards with some shade. But it didn’t happen before a long, drawn-out fight. And with all the anti-immigrant laws being passed by states such as Arizona and Georgia, who knows how long it will last? Or how long before the need for these desperate migrant slaves disappears entirely—to succumb, like so many other jobs, to some more highly evolved machine.

Meantime, though, most Americans can continue to enjoy their year-round tomatoes, a continuing tribute, if only unconsciously, to the triumph of American technology over American taste—or American conscience.

Lawrence DiStasi

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