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'Tomatoland' author Barry Estabrook: 'We're a nation of food illiterates'

Like a modern-day William Tell, Barry Estabrook took aim at America's favorite fruit and scored a bull's-eye: Tomatoland is a searing indictment of Florida's fresh-tomato industry (yes, a fruit, not a vegetable). Expanding on his 2010 James Beard Award-winning article in Gourmet, Estabrook examines growers' use of pesticides and fungicides; conditions for tomato workers that include documented cases of slavery; and something we can all attest to: mealy, flavorless tomatoes. We spoke with Estabrook by phone to discuss Florida winter tomatoes, what he calls "the poster child of what is wrong with modern agriculture."

Q: When you first undertook the project of writing about Florida tomatoes for Gourmet, did you suspect "The Price of Tomatoes" would be a tale of human trafficking?

A: I first started covering tomatoes because I was a food writer, writing about them from a culinary point of view. From a gastronomic perspective, how do you go from something as wonderful as a fresh local tomato to something as devoid of taste and as stripped of vitamins and other nutrients as the modern tomato? That's what got me interested. I did a story on the controversy about UglyRipes in 2006 (a Florida tomato developed by Procacci Brothers that was originally deemed too misshapen to be sold out of state), and the workers were invisible to me. I made a specific trip down to Immokalee and thought I'd stumbled into an isolated case of human trafficking.

Q: Do you have any updates on the more recent successes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their Campaign for Fair Food?

A: If I wrote Tomatoland today it would be a story about how this ragtag group brought about what could well be the most wide-reaching change in agricultural labor relations. The Fair Food Agreement basically gives a penny more a pound directly to workers. On a good day, this is the difference between making $50 and $80, from not being able to feed your family to being a crummy but livable wage.

But even more importantly, there's now a grievance mechanism in place. From sexual harassment to human trafficking or illegal use of pesticides, the workers have a way to report that. Additionally, every worker crew has a couple of people trained in basic first aid and safety, and now there are punch clocks so worker hours are official. Every work crew now actually attends an hour-long educational program where all these rights are explained to them by former workers. They've built a system that involves the growers and the workers, where every party is at the table. There's nothing else like that in labor relations in the country.

Fast-food joints have joined because they figure it's cheaper to pay the extra penny a pound, in terms of public relations. Meanwhile, grocery stores have balked. Whole Foods is the only chain that has signed this Fair Food Agreement.

Q: Either with pesticide use or worker conditions, have you seen legislation, or at least public awareness, change in positive ways since the publication of Tomatoland?

A: Legislation? No. Zip. Public attitude? As I travel around promoting the book, people seem more aware. Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a very persistent coalition.

Q: You live on 30 acres in Vermont and garden and raise chickens and make your own hard cider. Even if these kinds of life choices aren't economically viable, what can consumers do to amend their eating behavior?

A: The book is about tomatoes, but I'm using tomatoes as a lens to look at the bigger problem of industrial foods. I would say, first and foremost, if your circumstances permit, grow something. It connects you to your food and shows you what you're missing. It will show you how good these things can be if done right. The second thing, when you do find a small local grower — and I know that down in Ruskin there are small growers who are doing great tomatoes — patronize them. And if you're upset with the quality of produce, talk to the produce manager of your favorite supermarket.

Q: Europeans often say disparagingly that Americans buy produce with their eyes. How do we get away from this, so that the onus is on farmers to grow things that taste good?

A: I had a Florida tomato grower say to me that consumers just want something red to put in their salad, and that people don't taste tomatoes before they buy them. I think it's cultural — we just don't think about our food. We're a nation of food illiterates.

But I think people are slowly wising up to taste. Tasti-Lees (a Florida tomato developed by plant breeder John Warner Scott, showcased in the book) are picked closer to ripeness. People are increasingly willing to pay for taste. Tasti-Lees are a step in the right direction.

Q: You write that Florida tomato growers use five times as much fungicide and six times as much pesticide as California growers. Why has this situation with tomatoes occurred in the Sunshine State?

A: There's an inherent problem when your Department of Agriculture and your Department of Consumer Affairs are one and the same. The interest of the consumer and that of agriculture often run contrary to each other. It's not that Florida standards are lax, it's that there's a lack of enforcement. For example, Florida doctors often don't report pesticide poisoning. In California they have to report it to get paid by Medicare. It's a one-sided deal in Florida, bowing down to the agricultural interests.

Q: Beyond your award-winning blog Politics of the Plate, where can consumers find out more on these topics?

A: The best places to go are now found on the Web. The environmental website Grist is good. Also Mother Jones and Civil Eats. For food safety issues, I turn to Food Safety News, started by food safety trial lawyer William Marler.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.


Barry Estabrook

He will speak at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the auditorium of the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute at USF St. Petersburg and sign books afterward. Books will be sold at the event. Visit

festivalof for information.

'Tomatoland' author Barry Estabrook: 'We're a nation of food illiterates' 10/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 4:30am]
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