A Conversation with Barry Estabrook, the Author of Tomatoland

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Brittany Keats Cerullo)

Bred for durability, grown in the inhospitable Florida sand, exposed to any number of harmful pesticides, prematurely harvested by the hands of immigrants living in virtual slavery, and finally gassed to ripeness — or rather, redness — within the confines of a warehouse: This is the biography of the modern American tomato as told by Barry Estabrook in his 2011 shocking exposé of the tomato industry, Tomatoland.

Born of a James Beard Award-winning article in Gourmet Magazine, Tomatoland exposed the myriad ills of the Florida tomato industry, which Estabrook described as “the most repressive agricultural sector” in the country at the time.

Since the book’s publication, much has changed for America’s tomato growers — and much for the better. What has changed? What’s still the same? Should we look at grocery store tomatoes any differently? We talked with Estabrook on the state of tomatoes, five years later.

In the five years since Tomatoland was published, where has the evolution of the tomato industry been the most apparent?

I finished research for Tomatoland in late 2010, which was the year the Florida Tomato industry underwent a sea change. All of the major growers in the state joined a dozen or so giant corporations, including McDonalds, Burger King, and major food services companies, by signing onto the Fair Food Program.

Among other things, the program created a zero-tolerance policy for slavery (all too common in the tomato fields pre-2010) and sexual harassment (also common). It gave all workers a 50-percent raise, and, for the first time, established a system for them to air grievances.

Critically, these standards were designed by the workers themselves through a group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. It was a bottom-up movement, not top-down. An independent third-party organization called the Fair Foods Standards Council was created at about the same time to assure that the tenets of the Fair Food Program were put in place.

Frankly, I was skeptical at first. But the new arrangement has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. Tens of millions of dollars have been put into workers’ pockets, thousands of unannounced in-field audits have been conducted, and hundreds of grievances have been adjudicated.

Today, the program is expanding into other tomato-producing states and into the strawberry industry. It has become a template for eliminating labor abuse in agriculture.

And, guess what? The big farm corporations, who came aboard reluctantly after more than a decade of pressure from the workers, religious groups, and food purveyors, are finding that they like the new relationship they have with their workers. It turns out that laborers who don’t hate you are more productive.

Awareness of what we eat — where our food comes from, at what cost to the environment, and whether or not it’s actually any good for us — has snowballed since 2009, when your article “The Price of Tomatoes” appeared in Gourmet. What do you think is driving this hunger for better, more ethically sourced food? Is it simply that activists and writers like you are calling attention to the flaws in our food system, or is there something else going on?

I tend to see things from the opposite point of view: Given all the publicity and efforts of so many advocacy groups and individuals, why has change been so slow in coming? Or put another way, why do we still have so far to go?

For all the progress the Coalition has made in the past five years, the Fair Food Program remains a rare beacon of light in a pretty dark industry. Most farm workers still don’t have a guaranteed right to exercise collective bargaining. They get no overtime, regardless of how many hours they work, and no benefits. Children deemed too young to work in most industries can legally toil in our fields.

Some areas are regressing, not progressing. In part of my most recent book, Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, I look at labor conditions in slaughterhouses. Wages there are in free fall—down 40 percent in real terms since the 1980s, and the rate of injury is skyrocketing.

And the fact remains that two-thirds of the people who provide the food we eat are undocumented, and essentially have no basic rights. They are invisible.

So, yes, awareness has risen. But we need to transform that awareness into concrete action.

There’s a lovely passage in the introduction to your book where you suggest that we should “insist on eating food that meets our standards only, not the standards set by corporate agriculture.” In all the years that you’ve been writing about food, have you encountered any product that corporate agriculture has managed to improve, from a gastronomic point of view?

Corporate agriculture does one thing, and only one thing, extremely well. It puts incredibly cheap food on our tables. But that cheapness comes at an incredible cost to the environment, to workers, to rural communities, and to food quality — in terms of both nutrition and taste. To cite one example, we all know what industrial tomatoes taste like (or don’t), but they also have only a fraction of the vitamins that the tomatoes my mother fed to me in the 1960s did.

The reason is because producers are not paid for flavor and healthfulness — they are paid by the pound or bushel. This means that plant breeders and university agronomy teachers have no incentive to put the extra effort and expense into developing crops and growing techniques that contribute to the gastronomic quality of food. So the short answer is, no, I can’t think of a single product corporate agriculture has improved.

At the end of the book, you introduce a term Michael Pollan makes reference to in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “artisanal economics,” which is founded on the idea that the only way to compete with uniform, industrially produced commodities (e.g., the red, tasteless tomatoes you’d find at a supermarket) is to capitalize on “oddness” (the brown, the lumpy, the ugly). Can you speak to the growth of the artisan economy in the years since your book was published, and what you predict for the future?

The artisanal food and beverage economy has exploded over the past two decades, and I see no signs of it slowing down. Once you taste a well-baked slice of bread, treat yourself to a wedge of cheese from a small dairy, or sip a craft beer, it’s all but impossible to go back to Wonder Bread, Bud, or Kraft.

The artisanal economy is the complete inverse of the commodity economy. In the commodity economy, the goal is not to distinguish your products from the competition. It’s the opposite — to make what you grow or manufacture as close to identical to your competitor’s as possible. A tomato is a tomato is a tomato, no matter who grows it. Supermarkets love that. You compete by being cheaper and attract customers through advertising.

Artisans celebrate differences. They build customer loyalty by producing goods that are distinctive. Buyers seeking such products are happy to pay a premium.

We’re talking even less about the environment than we did in 2012. As a food writer concerned with issues of sustainability, what do you see as the most fundamental changes the current administration would need to commit to making in order to put more sustainably sourced food on Americans’ plates?

A simple move that would solve many of the social problems in agriculture is to somehow legitimize the status of the undocumented immigrants who now work in our fields and food processing facilities. The Senate has already passed such a law, but the House refuses to so much as debate the issue. I think that’s called burying your head in the sand.

The Food and Drug Administration needs to enact strict controls over the use of low-dose of antibiotics currently fed to farm animals, which lead to the evolution of so-called superbugs — bacteria that cannot be killed by even the strongest drugs in our medical arsenal. The European Union has banned this practice. There is no reason we can’t.

I’d love to see more financial resources going to small, sustainable farmers rather than agribusinesses.

I’m sorry to say that I can’t see any of this happening.

Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?

My next book project has not fully crystallized. But I’m interested in seeing if there’s a way I can investigate what strikes me as this country’s dysfunctional relationship to food — the root of many of the food system’s problems.