Speaker reveals horrible history of tomato industry

By Heidi Cho
Staff Writer

Although the West Coast is one of the three largest tomato producers in Florida, there are no West Coast tomatoes, according to an investigative journalist who dug deep into the food production system and shared his findings on Wednesday, Feb. 22, in the Library Auditorium.

As long as the media does not know about it, big tomato producers can get away with not branding their products because they have no public image to uphold.

This invisibility is what allowed them to enslave their farmworkers and hide behind Ol’ McDonald’s farm without consequences — until Barry Estabrook released his book, “Tomatoland,” in 2010.

Estabrook’s book details the farming habits of the tomato industry that kept their workers in worse conditions than their tomatoes. Through the efforts of the marginalized farmworkers, the book soon became completely outdated “in the best way,” Estabrook said.

How did the migrant, poor, semi-literate farmworkers turn the tomato industry’s harvest of shame into hope?

Estabrook tells the story of forgotten farmworkers.. (Kim Iannarone / Staff Photographer)

Estabrook told of the template created by the farmworkers to help others rise from their chains.

“Forget anything you ever thought of as a farm,” Estabrook said.

Tomatoes in Florida, one of the largest locations of tomato production in the world, are grown in fields of sand. The vast plots are pumped with the exact amount of water and nutrients needed to produce the bare minimum to grow a tomato. Then, they are picked and transported to conveyor belts.

This is a modern farm, where growing stalks are battlegrounds and chemical warfare is fair play.

Workers then separate the ripe, red tomatoes out from the green, sturdier tomatoes that are more likely to pass through transportation unscathed. The green tomatoes move on to to be gassed in ethylene to color them orange.

The environment in which the tomatoes were grown was bad, but the conditions under which the farmworkers had to pick them were even worse.

People lived off of 50 cents per 32 pounds of tomatoes they picked. The mostly Hispanic population could only afford to live in trailers that housed 10 or more people.

Some would be shackled with chains, “so people don’t run away,” Estabrook said.

One-third of the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used are “bad actors:” mutagenic, carcinogenic, acutely toxic and neurotoxic chemicals.

Although it is possible for consumers to avoid the pesticide residue on 54 percent of grocery store tomatoes, most farmworkers will not be able to avoid it: 96 percent reported pesticide exposure at work, and 53 percent reported pesticides have touched their skin.

Pregnant women ran from the spray of pesticides that came through with workers in the fields, so that their babies are not disabled like Carlito, the son of a farmworker who was born without arms and legs because of exposure to pesticides in the womb.

These working conditions did not qualify as “indentured servitude” or a “peculiar institution.” It could only be classified as slavery, according to Estabrook, who referred to the tomato industry as “ground zero” for modern slavery and sweatshops. The only thing that changed was the skin color.

People were whipped, beaten and raped in the fields, like 16-year-old Edgar who had to go to the hospital after his transgression: getting a drink of water.

Someone held up Edgar’s blood-soaked shirt high in the crowd that had formed around the crew boss who had beat the teenager, and said, “Today it was Edgar’s shirt. Now, it’s everyone’s shirt.”

Edgar’s shirt taught the workers the first of three lessons — strength in numbers. As the workers rose up around the bloodied shirt like a war banner, the farmworkers realized that they had more bargaining power together, so they decided to talk to the bosses in groups for fairer conditions.

It wasn’t enough, though, as one boss refused to talk to the workers because he does not talk to his tractors.
In response, “I am not a tractor” was written in Spanish on workers’ headbands.

Migrant workers toil away in the tomato fields. (AP Photo)

“One more cent per pound” was written in Spanish on several signs, too.

Getting media attention was the second lesson, and the third lesson was that the major tomato industry customers would do anything to protect their image: They knew they could protest the fast food companies have images to protect. With the help of media and college students, they first went after Taco Bell to sign onto buying tomatoes from ethical producers.

From these lessons, farmworkers continued to grow their cause to get better conditions for every worker. As media attention grew, they became known as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Farmworkers had come up with the Fair Food Program, which included education for every worker before they went into the fields, shade during breaks, 24/7 surveillance in the fields and a third party that would investigate and punish the companies based on a 24-hour telephone line to report any issues.

Today more than 14 buyers, including McDonalds, Walmart and Yum Brands, and more than 20 participating grower, are partnered with what The New York Times called “the best workplace-monitoring program” in America and what The Washington Post said was “one of the great human rights success stories of our day.”

While the farmworkers’ working conditions have changed for the better, they still live in trailer parks. Other farming industries around the world still have slavery rings.

The modern tomato is still a “tasteless, nutrient-less” produce, according to Estabrook. It is the poster child for what industrialized agriculture has done to farming, workers and consumers.

“My generation has failed you,” Estabrook said.

Yet the farmworkers demonstrated how people together can rise and fight oppressive systems. To Estabrook, the audiences that attend his presentations mean something to him.

“To see young, intelligent, soon-to-be well-educated people like you taking an interest in this vital issue is —  I can’t thank you enough,” Estabrook said. The full audiences that have attended the 30 to 40 presentations he has given mean that the rising generation cares.

Julien Blanchard, a sophomore English major, said many people think that liberal arts college students are “intellectuals with no realistic solutions.”

However, a class he is taking this semester, Student Faculty Interdisciplinary Seminar Toward Just and Sustainable Communities, brings together multiple perspectives on environmental issues like the one discussed in Estabrook’s presentation. Blanchard felt the concrete and realistic plan offered by Estabrook was one step toward actual change.

Jessica Hwang, a sophomore biology and public health double major, is in the same class as Blanchard and felt moved by the work the migrant workers had accomplished and that college students had helped.

When the farmworkers were doing hunger strikes outside of Taco Bell offices, executives did not mind. When a few college students managed to shut down 15 outlets in the college’s area, that was when the executives caved.

“Clearly, it just takes a little bit of passion to make a change,” Hwang said.