The vast majority of winter tomatoes in the United States are grown in Florida, a region whose soil and climate are inhospitable to the cultivation of this popular fruit. That paradox alone illustrates the folly of a $5 billion industry that relies on deplorable labor practices, the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and fragile economies of scale to produce perfectly round, perfectly red, and perfectly tasteless tomatoes. “Of all the fruits and vegetables we eat,” Barry Estabrook writes in his new book, Tomatoland, “none suffers at the hands of factory farming more than a tomato grown in the wintertime fields of Florida.”
If you’ve purchased a tomato between the months of October and June chances are it came from Florida (one third of all tomatoes grown in the US come from the Sunshine State). It will have been plucked from the vine hard as a rock and as green as a Granny Smith apple before being gassed with ethylene to make it look ripe and then sent off to supermarkets and fast food restaurants nationwide. It was probably picked by one of the state’s many day laborers, a vast army of modern-day slaves, who often live in squalor and are paid by the pound. The soil – or, more accurately, sand – has been laced with methyl bromide, and the tomatoes themselves sprayed with dozens of pesticides, harmful to workers and consumers alike. In 2006 Florida applied roughly eight million pounds of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides to its tomatoes – eight times as much as California, which has about the same number of acres in production. And all this for a flavorless tomato that has far fewer nutrients than those grown in the 1960s.
How have we reached such a low point? Estabrook’s concise and utterly damning book, which began as an article for Gourmet magazine, where he was a contributing editor for many years, attempts to answer that question.
Florida started shipping winter tomatoes to the northeast in the 1880s just as refrigerated rail cars were beginning to change the expectations of consumers and the contours of agricultural production nationwide. Out of season tomatoes were still a novelty and, though Estabrook doesn’t explain how, Florida growers managed to sell them at a price average New Englanders could afford. Between 1890 and 1900 the price of fresh vegetables declined considerably in part because of increased production in the south. By 1930, nearly 30,000 acres of land in Florida were under production and there was no looking back. By the 1990s revenues from Florida tomato sales exceeded $800 million and the state, through its Tomato Committee, held a virtual monopoly on determining everything from the size and shape to the color and texture of tomatoes on offer.
According to Estabrook, the committee, because of an arcane marketing act passed in 1937, “prevents the shipping of tomatoes that are lopsided, kidney shaped, elongated, angular, ridged, rough, or otherwise ‘deformed.’ It delineates down to the millimeter the permissible depth and length of the ‘growth’ cracks surrounding the scar where the fruit has been attached to the stem.” But: “nowhere do the regulations mention taste.”
Indeed, a decent tasting tomato may be the committee’s greatest threat. Witness its all out war against Florida grower Joe Procacci. In the mid 1990s Procacci developed a better than average, though far from perfect looking, winter tomato by crossing the disease resistant Florida variety with a French heirloom called Marmande. A savvy marketer, Procacci labeled them UglyRipes and sales took off. By 2004 they were beginning to rival the conventional field tomato, even though they were more expensive, and the committee intervened. Procacci was barred from shipping them out of state and had to scrap nearly 700 acres of UglyRipes. The company lost $3 million. Eventually, after the issue reached the floor of the US Senate, UglyRipes were given an exemption from federal grading standards, which allowed Procacci to continue to sell them.
Clearly the cards are stacked against anyone trying to grow a good tomato in Florida. So as consumers we should look elsewhere. As Estabrook notes, “Insist on eating food that meets our standards only, not the standards set by corporate agriculture.”
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