I have been remiss in reading over the holidays. Between work, family and being out of town, I renewed “Tomatoland” from the library twice before I finally finished it.
But don’t let yourself read into that — it’s not the book’s fault. Written by Barry Estabrook and subtitled “How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit,” “Tomatoland” is incredibly well-written. It draws you in from the beginning just by its subject matter.
The author focuses on Florida, a state that produces one-third of the country’s fresh tomato crop — a $5 billion industry. But the state’s sandy, nutrient-deprived soil and its year-round warm weather makes for a tough environment for thriving plants. The crops are doused in a mixture of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides to combat diseases not killed off by colder temperatures.
As Estabrook explains the well-oiled machine of Florida tomato-growing, he focuses on the impact that these chemicals have on the workers in the fields — mostly immigrants. The struggles of affordable housing, fair wages and humane treatment for farm workers was hard to read.
How many people think of the work that went into your $2.50 pint of cherry tomatoes? Of the workers who plant the seeds and spray the crops and pluck the still-green tomatoes to ship them to groceries across the U.S.? All for a tomato that doesn’t even taste as it should.
The book is eye-opening, as I believe Estabrook intended. The tomato is one of America’s most popular veggies (OK, technically fruits), from salads to pasta sauce to BLTs. But in peeling back the layers of middle men between the tomato seed and the slice on your plate, “Tomatoland” reveals the cost of eating what you like, whenever you’d like.