The Moral Fruit


This post ran last week on Kirkus blogs. Check out their fun pieces on all kinds of books.

Tomatoland If Matt’s Wild Cherry, one of the best tomato varieties in my garden, is a minor character in your book, I am automatically in.  

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.


  1. Your post definitely makes me want to pick up this book and it will only be my 3rd or 4th ‘garden’ book – first few being yours and Amy’s.
    After reading this post, right off the bat – I definitely do not want to purchase tomatoes during winter. It’s something I think most people do not consider prior to throwing vegetables into their cart: what is in season?
    I wish every grocery store had a produce section devoted to what is in season (within a reasonable distance, like 100 mi. or something).

  2. I completely agree Jennifer, and it’s not just because tomatoes are my favorite thing since sliced bread (tomatoes came before sliced bread though so how does that work?). my sister just planted a veggie garden…this could be a good gift. i hope you guys can share some wisdom over at and maybe get some ideas from there as well.

  3. I read an excerpt from this book & knew I had to have it. Just the description of tomatoes that can survive a 20′ (pretty sure that’s what he said) fall from the back of a semi-trailer going 60 mph had me vowing to never buy a grocery store tomato again. And that was before I read about the toxins, the slavery & near-slavery …

  4. Michelle I just finished reading your book-thank you! Wonderful advice and suggestions. I would like to echo Jennifer and Zach with regards to local produce versus the nasty stuff we get around out of season.
    I would like to point out something that Michelle raises in her book with regards to planting seeds and varieties of plants from purveyors that are in your own area as well. That made me think about buying seeds from New England (where I live).

  5. If I had to depend on fresh local produce in the winter months I would get scurvy, or what ever you get when you don’t get fruit and vegetables. Come on people, some of us live where we have WINTER. And some stuff can be stored thru the winter months, root vegetables, apples, Yeah, I can perserve by canning and freezing my own stuff but I would miss out on a lot. Instead of just saying eat local, say eat responsibly.

  6. I’m from Florida, and most of the long-term residents who read or watch any news sources know about this exploitation. Unfortunately, while many Floridians are disgusted by these practices, they’re also trying to save the coral reefs, manatees, everglades, nesting sea turtles, sand dunes, other wetlands, and prevent salt water intrusion into the underground water supply. All the while, the state has had population growth almost every year for decades, until the housing market crash, but it’s starting to go back up again. Then throw in the oil spill and a few hurricanes each year and you start to get the picture of why the voters who would love to change this system just dont have the money for the lawyers to stop a profitable company. I’m sure that the tomato production is not beneficial to the other causes (particularly the everglades and wetlands), but it’s hard to take down a Florida agricultural entity, whether it’s sugar, citrus, beef, or tomatoes. So while I will probably buy this book (I had a friend that worked with special needs children, and the birth defect stories from the tomato pickers’ children were disturbing), I’ll hold off passing too much judgement on the citizens of the state until I can fund their lawyers.

  7. And…what about all that corn on the cob that appears in northern supermarkets almost all year ’round??

  8. (I do a little gardening in the early Spring but is too hot right for the blooms to set now. My blogspot is if you care to see some of what I do.

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