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Tomatoland

December 10, 2011

I’m currently reading Tomatoland, by Barry Estabrook. The front cover quote is from Ruth Reichl, who says:

“If you have ever eaten a tomato – or ever plan to – you must read Tomatoland. It will change the way you think about America’s most popular ‘vegetable.’ More importantly, it will give you new insight into the way America farms.”

51 pages in, and how. I knew a lot of the general information and basics from a position spent researching labor and growing practices, but it’s still a shock to read. California, which houses the same number of tomato-growing acres as Florida, used “slightly fewer than one million pounds of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides in 2006. During the same year, Florida’s tomato farmers applied eight times as much: nearly eight million pounds” (41). California has approximately 350 field inspectors. Florida has sixty. In 2006, Florida reported one or two definite cases of pesticide exposure in farmworkers. California reported 200.

As an marketer or lawyer can tell you, though, statistics will never win your battle. Estabrook demonstrates that the devil truly does appear in the details:

Tower Cabins is a labor camp consisting of about thirty drab wooden shacks and a few detoriorating trailers crammed together behind an unpainted wooden fence just south of Immokalee, a city in the heart of southwest Florida’s tomato-growing region. The community of poor migrant laborers is dreary at the best of times, but just before Christmas a few years ago, there were reasons for joy. Three women, all neighbors, were expecting children within seven weeks of each other.

But in the lives of tomato workers, there is a fine line between hope and tragedy. The first baby, the son of twenty-year-old Abraham Candelario and his nineteen-year-old wife, Francisca Herrera, arrived on December 17. They named the child Carlos. Carlitos, as they called him, was born with an extremely rare condition called tetra-amelia syndrome, which left him with neither arms nor legs. About six weeks later, a few cabins away, Jesus Nevarrete was born to Sostenes Maceda. Jesus had Pierre Robin Sequence, a deformity of the lower jaw. As a result, his tongue was in constant danger of falling back into his throat, putting him at risk of choking to death. The baby had to be fed through a plastic tube. Two days after Jesus was born, Maria Meza gave birth to Jorge. He had one ear, no nose, a cleft palate, one kidney, no anus, and no visible sex organs. A couple hours later, following a detailed examination, the doctors determined that Jorge was in fact a girl. Her parents renamed her Violeta. Her birth defects were so severe that she survived for only three days.

In addition to living within one hundred yards of each other, Herrara, Maceda, and Meza had one other thing in common. They all worked for the same company, Ag-Mart Produce, Inc., and in the same vast tomato field.

In that field, they had been exposed to an assortment of the nineteen herbicides, thirty-one fungicides, and sixty pesticides that are recommended in the Vegetable Production Handbook for Florida 2010-2011. And how had the woman had enough contact with the chemicals to create the birth defects? Because the farming system they work for values product, not people. Victor Grimaldi, a member of the board of the Farmworker Association of Florida, worked for 20 years in farm fields. On his first day

Grimaldi was given a backpack-mounted tank full of pesticide, dispatched into a field, and told to start spraying a row of tomatoes. As he worked along, he came near a group of pickers. He abandoned the row they were working in and preceded to the next. The crew boss came up and said, “Why did you move?” Grimaldi answered that he had just seen a [training] video showing that spraying near people was against the law. “I’m the low out here,” the subcontractor said, and ordered Grimaldi back to the row with the pickers.

Later that day, Grimaldi had to stand in a ditch full of what he assumed was water to reach a row of plants with the sprayer. That night, when he went to wash his feet, his toenails fell off, just like flakes of soap. Grimaldi saw that when workers complained, they lost their jobs. The primary lesson on how to handle pesticides was not to utter a word about them.

Conditions in Florida fields are abysmal, and if you eat a fresh tomato in the winter, you are all but assured that the tomato comes from the sunshine state. I’ll be refusing tomatoes on my sandwiches this winter, and I certainly won’t be buying any in-store.

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