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26 october 2011

Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland is in part a familiar kind of contemporary work on agriculture from a foodie perspective. What is a tomato, where do we get ours, why do they taste like wet plastic packing peanuts, where are the new organic local small-farmer tomatoes coming from? It might be a chapter from a Michael Pollan book; indeed Estabrook invokes Pollan. On the back of the book, Jacques Pépin holds forth about the "fascinating history of the peregrination of the tomato" that the book promises. But Tomatoland turns out to be more about slavery than anything else. Many reviews of the book have noted as much, and I feel a similar obligation: both to let a reader know what's coming, and to praise Estabrook for broaching a vital and forbidding issue.

As so often, the subtitle of a book misleads. (I suspect that authors choose titles, and marketing departments write subtitles.) "How modern industrial agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit" sounds appropriately critical, but it indicates aesthetic, sensory perspectives. Aesthetics and senses feature in Estabrook's book, but most of it isn't about people destroying tomatoes; it's about tomatoes destroying people.

Slavery, of course, has a long history in Florida. Slavery was well-established there during colonial periods, and Florida was one of the states that left the Union in 1861 to defend chattel slavery. After emancipation, slavery took different forms, including convict labor and debt peonage. Estabrook shows how modern slavery fits into the history of slavery, and how that history is inextricable from mass-market agriculture.

Modern Florida-style slavery plays new variations on the old theme of forced labor. Debt peonage is part of the system: workers are advanced putative sums by their bosses (at arbitrary, usurious rates), and then placed on a treadmill where they can never quite pay off that "debt" while they incur new charges that put them further behind. Debt peonage is exacerbated by other dynamics unique to Florida and the 21st century. The workers are often Mexican and Central American Indians, illiterate, able to speak very little Spanish or English. In such a situation, trucked onto a peninsula thousands of miles from home, workers remain in involuntary servitude out of confusion and fear. There's nowhere to go. When they do try to escape, they're beaten, chained down, and sometimes killed. Why? To keep East-coast winter tomatoes cheap.

We often think of human trafficking as linked to the sex trade. We also think of illegal immigration as somehow an invasion, often spurred by Mexican criminal cartels. Estabrook paints a less sensational, far sadder picture. Agribusiness, as practiced in Florida and other intensive-horticulture states, simply depends on a captive labor force. As one reads his analysis, many political dynamics align to make sense. Anti-immigrant rhetoric demonizes the individual "offender." But many illegals are in the U.S. involuntarily. (Or if they've started voluntarily, they soon find themselves unable to leave, not just the country, but even the trailer where they're chained between sessions in the fields.) By whipping up xenophobia, right-wing critics of immigrants deflect attention from the all-American big tomato growers.

Meanwhile, tort lawyers are the heroes of Estabrook's narrative. Andrew Yaffa seeks damages for workers harmed by chemicals. Gregory Schell sues for fairer working conditions in the vegetable industry. One begins to see why Republicans hate tort lawyers. Again, the sensational cases are things like the "hot coffee" case, which seem to illustrate a system gone frivolously mad. In reality, big companies don't fear, or fight, the occasional hot-coffee suit nearly so much as the systematic battle that lawyers like Yaffa and Schell wage against the predatory practices of an entire industry. Replace the lone complainer (crazy or not-so) and their coffee burns with an entire industry full of workers systematically exploited as a standard business practice, and you begin to see what "tort reform" really means to Republicans – and conversely the connection between tort lawyers and modestly progessive Democrats.

But Estabrook makes clear that Democratic and Republican administrations alike have been unfriendly toward the immigrant farmworker. The people who pick winter tomatoes have no votes; and they have had no voice in mainstream media till now. I hope that the message of Tomatoland can be magnified on their behalf.

Estabrook, Barry. Tomatoland: How modern industrial agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2011.