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Tomatoland: The Many Problems with Commercial Tomato Production

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Tomatoland sheds light on industrial agriculture and the food we eat every day.
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Store-bought is nothing like homegrown when it comes to tomatoes.
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GRIT Editor in Chief Hank Will at the wheel of his 1964 International Harvester pickup.

I walk into the grocery store midwinter and spy those perfectly smooth and red tasteless tomatoes, and instantly I engage in a visceral emotional battle over buying a package. I pick up the loveliest of those tasteless tomatoes and place it below my nose, inhaling deeply – is that the scent of tomato or is that the memory of last summer’s homegrown fruit I detect? No matter, I so crave the tomato’s potential for culinary complexities that in my mind I’ve already sliced that tasteless tomato and applied it to a sandwich or chunked it atop an out-of-season salad. And then I bite into it. Blech!

Until recently, I didn’t understand that there’s more reason than ever to grow your own tomatoes and avoid those unfortunate stand-ins for my favorite fruit. It turns out that the entire winter tomato industry is driven by the needs of its
industrial-sized customers, not those of us who love tomatoes – flavor, for the most part, doesn’t factor into the formula. I discovered all of this and much more while reading investigative food journalist Barry Estabrook’s latest work, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.  

Estabrook’s narrative begins with an animated analysis of uniformly hard, and perfectly shaped, green orbs flying off trucks at 60 mph (all safely hitting the pavement and rolling to a stop, none the worse for wear) and reveals the inner (and often very dark) workings of the winter tomato farming industry. Along the way I met true villains who kept workers in the field picking while spray rigs doused them with a cocktail so toxic some of their babies were born without limbs. I met modern-day slavers, growers in denial,
mothers-to-be beaten for taking time off for prenatal care, lawyers and public officials doing their best to elicit change, and scientists and breeders just doing what they do. Tomatoland illuminates the seedy labor contractor lurking in the shadows and calls an overly powerful state tomato committee on everything from intentionally keeping good-tasting tomatoes off grocery store shelves to threatening growers with six-figure fines for paying pickers a fair wage. Huh?

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit is a must read for everyone who eats. I don’t care if you are in the commodity cattle business or feed your own family with a small garden. I don’t care if you are a policy maker, extension professional, molecular biologist, industrial mogul, minister, teacher or what have you. Tomatoland illustrates how fundamentally bankrupt our current commodity-based, industrial food systems have become and offers a glimmer of hope for a food future that’s healthful for all involved. Read it and try not to weep. All of us – no matter where we are in the production chain – can do better. And we must.

Whether you’re savoring your first garden tomatoes, shearing your sheep, or preparing for the best barbecue ever, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. And if you have any tasteless tomato experiences of your own to share, please send them my way (hwill@Grit.com).

See you in September.


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.

Published on Jun 13, 2011

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