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Sure enough, by page four of Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, I learned that the first domesticated tomato, which probably dates to the Mayans, “produced long, sprawling vines familiar to any home gardener who has tried to rein in the rampant, weedy growth of varieties like Matt’s Wild Cherry.” And when I first opened Tomatoland, I expected more of the same, a foodie/garden-y investigation of arguably the most delicious thing ever to emerge from the plant kingdom.
What I didn’t expect was one of the best business books I’ve read in years.
Tomatoland is a cautionary tale of what happens when a politically protected dinosaur of an industry is permitted to wreak havoc on both the environment and the lives of its workers in order to make the largest possible profit on a really lousy product that should have been replaced long ago. Estabrook might as well be writing about coal mining, but his subject is the Florida tomato growers responsible for the vast majority of those execrable tomatoes that appear in winter in American supermarkets.
And coal mining could not possibly be rougher than tomato picking, where pregnant women are sent out into fields being sprayed with pesticides so toxic that in one indelible scene, a manager who accidentally sprays himself with the same chemical he allows his workers to wallow in screams hysterically, pulls off all his clothes, and throws himself into a watery ditch. The workers on these tomato farms, almost all immigrants, are routinely poisoned by the chemicals required to grow tomatoes in a humid state not really suited to tomato culture—and then underpaid and exploited in every possible way. Estabrook visits a fetid trailer shared by ten men at the cost of $2000 a month.: “The smell walloped me: Not quite body odor, not the stench of cooking or garbage, it was heavy, sweetish, thick, and stale.” It gets even worse. “In this world,” Estabrook explains, “slavery is tolerated and even ignored.”
There is outrage to spare here, but Estabrook, a longtime food writer, is not a scold, and as a reading experience, Tomatoland is surprising fun. This is partly due to Estabrook’s omnivorous appetites as a journalist. He goes everywhere and talks to everyone—and is perfectly delighted, for example, to allow the cartel boss who runs the Florida Tomato Committee—the ultimate enforcer of bad taste and low wages—to hang himself with his own hypocritical self-pity: “Doing good things and being good citizens and business people does not make the papers,” the guy whines.
There is a sprightliness to the prose in Tomatoland that you wouldn’t necessary expect, given the often grim subject matter. There is also a hopeful focus on all those people from organic farmers to advocates for the pickers who offer a better reality. And Estabrook himself is great company as a narrator, thanks to his obvious enjoyment in everything he sees and does, including popping a potentially toxic wild fruit into his mouth.
Nonetheless, Tomatoland has a moral force that I won’t soon forget. Estabrook makes it clear that the choice we make between a plastic-tasting supermarket tomato and a fragrant organic farmers’ market tomato is not merely a reflection of the fussiness of our palates. It also says everything about our humanity, and our conception of America as a nation.