Case Study: Tomatoes

Along with reading Tracie McMillan’s undercover story of her time in the California fields that produce grapes, peaches, and garlic, I’ve been reading Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. At first glance, the tagline “How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit” makes one think this will be a book about how we came to buy tasteless, colorless tomatoes all throughout the year thanks to the wonders of modern technology. And it does start there, moving on to a seriously disturbing chapter about the chemicals used in tomato farming that will have you run screaming from the produce aisle. The story of deformed babies born to women who’d worked in the fields while pregnant will give any mother pause about feeding these fruits to her children.

But the book’s main purpose, I believe, is to reveal the conditions in which the field hands live and work in order to provide for the American sense of entitlement to buy tomatoes any time of year. They were first outlined by Estabrook in his article for Gourmet magazine, which led directly to this book, entitled “The Price of Tomatoes“. There, and in the book of course, you will find the details behind the broad strokes I will mention here. I can’t recommend reading either or both highly enough.

In the best cases, workers are hired to pick winter tomatoes (picked green and hard then gassed to be red for market – but that’s another issue) and are paid, on a good day, about $70 for 8-9 hours of work (their wages, paid by the bushel gathered, have gone up dramatically just in the last few years after having been stagnant for thirty years, owing to a long battle by a coalition of workers that reads like a movie script – and really, should be – that involved a social media campaign getting major fast food outlets on board to pay “a penny more per pound”. Sadly, no grocery stores signed on to the pact, which also has provisions for better treatment of laborers, except Whole Foods early on and more recently Trader Joe’s).

That’s if they work all day; much of the time, hours are spent traveling to fields, waiting for trucks or other equipment, or any number of other delays for which they are not paid. One worker was out in the fields for nine hours and came home with a little over $13. In addition, they “are denied basic legal rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy” (p. xiv). And many days there is no work for large numbers of those who are willing and able, and they return to their homes frustrated and deeper in poverty than before.

At least they came home whole. Conditions in the field are dangerous and downright illegal, much of the time. Workers are forbidden breaks of any kind, even to go to the bathroom or drink water. If they don’t comply, they may be fired or even beaten. This is happening to children – only in agriculture are youths as young as twelve allowed to work. Originally, this was so farming families could have their own kin helping out; nowadays it’s used against the most vulnerable among the migrant farmworker population.

The living conditions at “home” aren’t much better: workers live in squalor, many in trailers near the parking lots where they are picked up for work. Estabrook visited one such trailer, where ten men shared the single-wide space: sleeping on rank mattresses on the floor, together using one bathroom and one tiny stove. His description of the space is stomach-turning. And for the privilege of enduring these conditions, the men paid $2,000 a month in rent!

But the most harrowing stories are those of the workers kept in – there’s no other way to put it – slave conditions. “Sold” to work crew bosses, they are forced to work all day, drowning under souped-up “debts” they can never repay, chained or locked up at night, and beaten or even killed if they try to escape. The conditions are described in detail in Estabrook’s article linked above and I encourage you to read about it. It is, unfortunately, not a “few and far between” occurrence. Slavery cases are regularly prosecuted in this part of Florida, and that’s only the ones they catch (you can imagine how difficult it would be to get witnesses for such cases, when the witnesses first have to escape slavery, then be willing to speak out about it, risking deportation and being labeled a snitch and therefore unemployable).

Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney, calls Florida’s tomato fields “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Estabrook elaborates: “Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery. In the last fifteen years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than one thousand men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will in the fields of Florida” (p. xv). Unfortunately, the punishment for these crimes usually stops at the lower level, with crew bosses or contractors. The growers, the farmowners, the corporations they grow for, and the rest of us may never even hear about it…much less be held accountable.

Do you understand what this means? Nearly 150 years after the Civil War, people are enslaved to pick crops, and it’s a regular business practice. One landowner said, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them” (p. 83). Another responded to worker demands for better treatment (via hunger strikes and requests for dialogue) with the flippant remark: “The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to farm” (p. 110).

A simple way to sum up the plight of tomato workers came to Estabrook when he was serving in the soup kitchen in the tomato town of Immokalee, FL: “Workers who pick the food we eat cannot afford to feed themselves” (p. 107). When Estabrook asked Molloy if it was “safe to assume” that we had, all of us, at one time or another eaten a tomato picked by a slave, he responded, “It’s not an assumption. It’s a fact” (p. xvi).

Want to know more, or help? Check out the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s website or Estabrook’s blog. Tomorrow I’ll continue talking about slavery, and finish the week with a few suggestions for how you can help impart justice to farm workers.

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2 thoughts on “Case Study: Tomatoes

  1. In our country, it is very popular to demonize unions but the condition you describe and even worse ones were the reasons that unions began. Your grandfather fought for the rights of those who needed help all his life in the IBEW 69, a utilities union forbidden by law to strike. He would be proud to see you standing up for those being abused by their employers and working to protect them.
    I am proud of you as well.

    I am also glad our own tomatoes are doing so well. I’ll be able to freeze a good amount for the coming winter. We’re also blessed to live in the heart of the farmland and to have a nearby farm that grows Hydropic tomatoes all year http://www.localharvest.org/ineichens-tomatoes-M20511 most of the year.

    And, unless I’m mistaken, I don’t think we have those kinds of conditions for farm laborers here in Iowa. Altho we do have issues–last year two 14 year-old girls were killed by a faulty watering system. They were about to start a day of corn de-tasseling, a job that pays very well but is terribly difficult, hot and tiring.

    Thanks for a well written, thought-provoking article. I may have to read some of these books.

  2. Pingback: Think you care about modern day slavery? How’s that tomato tasting? « FoodiEvangelist

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