The first tomato, and a reflection on what it means

1. This morning, Max picked the first sungold tomato produced in our garden. The tomato plant came from our amazing CSA at Westhaven Farm, and we have watched it grow and fruit over the last few weeks. Tiny, orange, and pretty darn delicious, it was a little piece of sunshine after all the thunder and lightning yesterday in Ithaca. To us, though, it meant something else. It was a reminder of the industrial food system and our efforts to disconnect ourselves from it and to figure out how others can do the same.

2. We recently read an article, an excerpt from a book, actually, by Mark Estabrook, a former editor of Gourmet (RIP). Many of us know about the horrifying human costs of industrial tomato farming. I learned in this article that there are migrant workers who are literally, not figuratively, enslaved on tomato farms. Maybe you already knew about this?

3. This is a little hard for me to write. When I got done reading the Estabrook article, I felt really, really sick. I wanted to drive to Wegman’s and yell at someone. I don’t think this is a good platform to tell people what and how to eat, but I want to share what I learned and what I think, which is this: It’s still important to eat carefully, especially when it comes to tomatoes. For me, this means eating local tomatoes only when I’m the one doing the shopping. In Ithaca, this means eating them when they’re in season, not whenever I want one. This is a choice I’m prepared to make. And anyway, they taste better.

Your thoughts?

Some important quotations from the Estabrook article:

On nutrition: “Today’s industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fresh tomatoes today have 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than they did in the 1960s.”

On the consumer’s right to not consume: “Not everyone can grow a garden or head out to a neighborhood farmers’ market in search of the ideal tomato. But we all have an alternative to the sad offerings of commercial agriculture. At a lunch spot in the town where I live, a handwritten notation appeared on the blackboard one afternoon. “Dear Customers, we will not be putting tomatoes on our sandwiches until we can obtain ones that meet our standards. Thanks.” With that small insurrection, the restaurant’s proprietor had articulated a philosophy that more of us should embrace: Insist on eating food that meets¬†our standards only, not the standards set by corporate agriculture.”

On pesticides: “When forced to struggle in the wilting humidity of Florida, tomatoes become vulnerable to all manner of fungal diseases. Hordes of voracious hoppers, beetles, and worms chomp on their roots, stems, leaves, and fruit. And although Florida’s sandy soil makes for great beaches, it is devoid of plant nutrients. To get a successful crop, they pump the sand full of chemical fertilizers and can blast the plants with more than one hundred different herbicides and pesticides, including some of the most toxic in agribusiness’s arsenal.¬†Workers are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis. The toll includes eye and respiratory ailments, exposure to known carcinogens, and babies born with horrendous birth defects.”

On labor conditions: “Although there have been recent improvements, a person picking tomatoes receives the same basic rate of pay he received 30 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, a harvester’s wages have actually dropped by half over the same period. Florida tomato workers, mostly Hispanic migrants, toil without union protection and get neither overtime, benefits, nor medical insurance. They are denied basic legal rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy. Lacking their own vehicles, they have to live near the fields, often paying rural slumlords exorbitant rents to be crammed with 10 or a dozen other farmworkers in moldering trailers with neither heat nor air conditioning and which would be condemned outright in any other American jurisdiction.”

On enslavement: “In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida’s tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery. In the last 15 years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will in the fields of Florida, and that represents only the tip of the iceberg. Most instances of slavery go unreported. Workers were “sold” to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards.”

On prosecuting slaveholders: “Even though police have successfully prosecuted seven major slavery cases in the state in the last 15 years, those brought to justice were low-ranking contract field managers, themselves only one or two shaky rungs up the economic ladder from those they enslaved. The wealthy owners of the vast farms walked away scot-free. They expressed no public regrets, let alone outrage, that such conditions existed on operations they controlled. But we all share the blame. When I asked Molloy if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in the winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. “It’s not an assumption. It is a fact.””

In summary: “In this world, slavery is tolerated, or at best ignored. Labor protections for workers predate the Great Depression. Child labor and minimum wage laws are flouted. Basic antitrust measures do not apply. The most minimal housing standards are not enforced. Spanish is the lingua franca. It has its own banking system made up of storefront paycheck-cashing outfits that charge outrageous commissions to migrants who never stay in one place long enough to open bank accounts. Pesticides, so toxic to humans and so bad for the environment that they are banned outright for most crops, are routinely sprayed on virtually every Florida tomato field, and in too many cases, sprayed directly on workers, despite federally mandated periods when fields are supposed to remain empty after chemical application. All of this is happening in plain view, but out of sight, only a half-hour’s drive from one of the wealthiest areas in the United States with its estate homes, beachfront condominiums, and gated golf communities. Meanwhile, tomatoes, once one of the most alluring fruits in our culinary repertoire, have become hard green balls that can easily survive a fall onto an interstate highway. Gassed to an appealing red, they inspire gastronomic fantasies despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a world we’ve all made, and one we can fix. Welcome to Tomatoland.”

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One thought on “The first tomato, and a reflection on what it means

  1. One of the specials they had on our anniversary was a strawberry salad featuring fresh mozzerella, basil, and mint

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