by Diana Viola
Tomatoland tells the story of the once-glorious, now a tasteless, and nutritionless container of assorted chemical toxins known as the commercial tomato. Within the story of this fruit (yes, it is a fruit) are many stories: those of the industry that developed a perfectly round, uniform, shippable green product, and of the human abuse and exploitation hidden from the eyes of the average shopper. It is a story of the laws of the land in their uses and misuse, of the politics of big business as it intertwines with elected officials. It is also the story of people who are led by conscience and a passion for justice, who are righting wrongs, and of those who are returning to the glories of the past - real tomatoes.
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit is an important book. It emerged from Barry Estabrook's James Beard Award-winning article for Gourmet Magazine. Estabrook, an investigative reporter, has meticulously researched the practices of agribusiness today, tracing the developments in Florida, primarily in Immokalee, where an industry developed, one based on the use of pesticides, and the exploitation of cheap labor. While his narration of the living and working conditions suffered by migrant farmers is both heart-breaking and harrowing, Estabrook offers hope for the future in his portraits of people of conscience and intelligence who are working for change. Fueled by Estabrook's passion, Tomatoland reads like a thriller and is impossible to put down. If you have never grown a tomato plant of your own, you will rush to start a garden rather than pick a pulpy tomato from the supermarket shelves
Estabrook has chosen to let the facts speak through the human beings who experience them. His accounts of the horrific experiences of migrant farm workers are based on real people dealing as best they can in a foreign environment. Generally they are isolated by language, and powerless to effect the most minor of changes. Estabrook is a hopeful man, however, and even as we wince reading the workers' stories, he introduces us to people working to improve the lot of migrant workers, and alter the production of tomatoes. We first meet tragic people such as little Carlitos, the offspring of migrant workers who were often drenched with pesticides as they worked in the fields. As a result of this exposure, Carlitos was born without arms and legs. In their story, however, we are brightened by meeting Andrew Yaffa, the attorney who worked pro bono to help Carlitos, his only goal to get justice and a decent life for the damaged child. Estabrook gives a lucid account of politics, of the law and of the tactics agribusiness uses to manipulate both. He reveals the corruption within the ranks of the undocumented workers to reveal that slavery does exist right here in the United States, and is often perpetuated by unscrupulous crew leaders while big business lowers its eyes.
To express the hope that we may feel, Estabrook speaks to lawyers who have turned their backs on high salaries in prestigious law firms to work for others; he speaks to farmers who cultivate their own fields, yielding lower profits, but larger human rewards, and a far superior tomato; he speaks with housing developers who provide solid and stable housing, treating the workers with dignity. In speaking to these people, he speaks to all of us - we are the final players in the cycle of agriculture - we are the consumers who buy tomatoes. As consumers, we are often unsatisfied with the toxic and tasteless tomato. Learning of the ills attending its production, wanting the taste of a real tomato, the consumer has given rise to new thinking, and demands for a quality product.
Estabrook also introduces us to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grass roots organization that is staffed by dedicated people, and continues its fight for change by pressuring producers and vendors alike. You can get more information here: http://www.ciw-online.org/index.html