[Marxism] Tomatoland

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 6 11:01:19 MDT 2011

The New York Times July 5, 2011
That Perfect Florida Tomato, Cultivated for Bland Uniformity

How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit
By Barry Estabrook
220 pages. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

Jonathan Lethem has seen the future of agribusiness, and that 
future is strange. In his novel “Girl in Landscape” (1998), he 
imagined humans inhabiting a new planet where meals grow inside 
“potatoes” that can be planted and harvested. Among the flavors: 
meat, cake and tea. “Fish,” one character announces, as if he were 
Ferran Adrià, “is the weirdest one.”

South Florida, where nearly all of America’s winter tomatoes are 
grown, is nearly as alien an environment for farming. It’s insane 
that tomatoes are grown there at all, Barry Estabrook writes in 
his delectable and angry new book, “Tomatoland.” This volume 
simmers like a big, bright kettle of heirloom tomato sauce.

Mr. Estabrook’s subtitle, “How Modern Industrial Agriculture 
Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit,” is spot-on, even if it reminds 
you that the only time the adjective industrial sounds 
nonterrifying is when it’s placed in front of “dance music.”

Why is South Florida such a grim place to grow tomatoes, the fruit 
we’ve agreed to accept — don’t ask, don’t tell — as a vegetable? 
Florida’s sandy soil, Mr. Estabrook writes, is as devoid of plant 
nutrients as a pile of moon rocks. “Florida growers,” he writes, 
“may as well be raising their plants in a sterile hydroponic medium.”

He continues, witheringly: “To get a successful crop, they pump 
the soil full of chemical fertilizers and can blast the plants 
with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides, including 
some of the most toxic in agribusiness’s arsenal.” Migrant workers 
are coated with these chemicals too. The toll that’s taken on 
them, in the form of birth defects, cancer and other ailments, is 
hideous to observe and should fill those who eat Florida tomatoes 
with shame.

And all this for what? Hard, tasteless, uniform green balls that 
barely dent when they fall off a truck at 60 miles per hour and 
that must be gassed to achieve the sick-pink hue they present in 
supermarkets. It’s no wonder generations of Americans have grown 
up thinking tomatoes were a fraud perpetrated by God, their 
parents or Taco Bell. I remember biting into one of these objects 
in a salad and thinking: Now there’s a supposedly tasty thing I’ll 
never eat again.

Mr. Estabrook, who was a contributor for many years to Gourmet 
magazine, is a careful John McPhee-like observer of nearly every 
aspect of the tomato’s history and current predicament. The modern 
tomato’s wild ancestors came from dry, inhospitable places like 
western Chile, Peru and Ecuador. These tomatoes tended to be tiny, 
and were painstakingly bred for size as well as flavor.

The Aztecs had a recipe for salsa. (They had another festive 
recipe, also employing tomatoes, that included the flesh of 
Spanish invaders, pulled one assumes like pork shoulder.) Tomatoes 
arrived in Europe by the mid-16th century, and were first 
mentioned in an Italian cookbook in 1692.

The historical details Mr. Estabrook supplies are consistently 
wonderful. During the Civil War, he writes, “the Union Army left a 
trail of empty tomato cans in the wake of its campaigns.” He 
points out that Americans ate better tomatoes, from Cuba, before 
Fidel Castro came to power. That’s when President Kennedy placed 
an embargo, still in effect, on Cuban tomatoes.

“Tomatoland” is at its most potent and scathing in its portrayal 
of South Florida’s tomato growers and their tactics over the past 
half-century. It’s infuriating to read of their lack of regard for 
the taste of their product. Historically, when a farmer has 
learned to grow a tasty variety, that farmer has actually been 
scorned and prevented from shipping it.

“Regulations actually prohibit growers in the southern part of 
Florida from exporting many of the older tasty tomato varieties 
because their coloration and shape don’t conform to what the 
all-powerful Florida Tomato Committee says a tomato should look 
like,” Mr. Estabrook writes.

It’s far more infuriating to read of the labor practices on these 
farms. That pickers are exposed to pesticides is only the tip of 
the iceberg. “Child labor and minimum wage laws are flouted,” Mr. 
Estabrook writes. “The most minimal housing standards are not 
enforced.” Worse, he writes, actual slavery is tolerated “or at 
best ignored.”

The author writes: “I began to see that the Florida tomato 
industry constitutes a parallel world unto itself, a place where 
many of the assumptions I had taken for granted about living in 
the United States are turned on their heads.”

To get at this world, he spent time with seed collectors, 
nutritionists, farmers, trade groups, workers and former workers, 
community developers. You get a sense of him shambling around in 
search of the weird and ugly truth, like Elliott Gould in “The 
Long Goodbye.” His tone is prosecutorial, but he notes the small 
improvement tomato companies have been forced to make in recent years.

I have a personal interest in “Tomatoland.” I spent a large chunk 
of my childhood in prosperous Naples, Fla., a scant half-hour — 
and yet a world away — from small-town Immokalee, the grim and 
scrubby home to Florida’s largest farmworker community. Immokalee 
is tomato central. Mr. Estabrook attends to reality when he 
writes, “Should you want to experience culture shock in one of its 
starkest forms, take the drive from Naples, Florida, to Immokalee.”

My mother taught for a decade in Immokalee Middle School, and 
regularly brought home horror stories about tomato pickers’ lives, 
and those of their children. I saw both sides. The family of a 
close high school friend owns one of the largest industrial tomato 
farms in Immokalee. Yet you don’t need to know this part of 
Florida to appreciate what Mr. Estabrook has accomplished.

“Tomatoland” is not as philosophically rich as Michael Pollan’s 
“Omnivore’s Dilemma.” It’s not as adrenalized and slashing as Eric 
Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.” His book has a design flaw that 
slightly disfigures Mr. Pollan’s book, too, namely a fondness for 
a pre-industrial version of American agriculture without really 
explaining how small, idiosyncratic, organic farms can begin to 
feed the world’s hungry hordes.

But the pleasures of “Tomatoland” are real. They’re strong but 
subtle and sustained. Mr. Estabrook’s prose contains a mix of 
sweetness and acid, like a perfect homegrown tomato itself.

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