If you live in the United States and you eat fresh tomatoes in the wintertime, you’ve almost certainly tasted a tomato that was picked by a slave.
“That’s not an assumption. That’s a fact,” reveals U.S. District Attorney Douglas Molloy to former Gourmet magazine contributing editor Barry Estabrook in Estabrook’s book, Tomatoland. Molloy is a veteran government prosecutor with more than a decade of experience dealing with crime in Immokalee, Florida, a town at the center of Florida’s tomato industry. And he calls Immokalee “ground zero for modern day slavery.”
Roughly 90 percent of the slicing tomatoes sold in the winter in the United States come from industrial farms in the Sunshine State. To ensure they survive the long journey from balmy Florida to places as far away as Detroit or Seattle with nary a dent, the perfectly round, perfectly red winter tomatoes that line supermarket shelves and feed fast food restaurant customers in northern states in December are actually picked while green and hard. Later, these unripe tomatoes are gassed en masse in warehouses with ethylene — the same gas tomato plants produce naturally when their fruits are ripening — to turn them prematurely red. (If you’ve ever wondered why supermarket tomatoes in winter taste vaguely like tomato-colored wood pulp, this common industry practice would be a big reason why.)
Tomatoes are big business in Florida. Florida farmers ship about one billion pounds of tomatoes out of the state each year — a major source of income for the state. Yet in Florida, industrial tomato farmers’ profits are under constant threat. Though Florida is one of the few states in the U.S. where the climate is naturally warm enough to grow tomatoes in the wintertime, in many other ways Florida’s environment is downright inhospitable to the tomato.
Florida’s sandy soil lacks nitrogen, an element tomatoes depend on in large quantities for survival. So farmers in Florida pump their fields full of artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers to keep their plants alive. When the price of oil rises, so does the price of fertilizer, taking a bite of an industrial tomato farm’s profits.
Florida’s constantly humid air welcomes fungi that attack tomatoes; its mild winters allow insect pests that eat to thrive. As a consequence, Florida tomato farmers spray their crops with tons of expensive — and toxic — herbicides and pesticides. And all this investment in the expensive tools of industrial agriculture’s chemical warfare can be wiped out in one night, with a single hard freeze. One in January 2010 destroyed nearly the entire state’s crop.
And, unlike heartier crops, like soybeans or corn, or tomatoes for canning, tomatoes for the fresh grocery and restaurant market cannot be harvested mechanically — to avoid damage, tomatoes must be picked by human hands. Every fresh tomato an American purchases was hand-picked by another person.
The owners of Florida’s industrial tomato farms can’t control the price of oil, or the prevalence of pests, or the weather. But, thanks to antiquated U.S. labor laws that exempt farm workers from many of the income and safety protections other American workers enjoy, the owners of Florida’s tomato farms can exercise a lot of control over one thing — the wages and the hours of their workers.
Photo of sliced tomatoes by Scott Bauer, from the USDA. Public domain. Photo of green tomatoes copyright 2010 by Jaelithe Judy. Used with permission.
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