Written by Lydia Benedict.

When I think of summer, I think of tomatoes. The sweet and tangy flavor of a homegrown tomato is a summer treat worth waiting for. Tomatoes are a sun-loving vegetable, and a gardener must endure the scorching rays of summer to reap her reward. I stopped purchasing store bought tomatoes some time ago simply because they have no flavor. (Call me crazy, but I want a tomato that tastes like a tomato—not like cardboard.) So when I taste my first tomato of the season, I’m in heaven—tomato heaven! Now let me tell you about Tomatoland. It’s a must read book. In Barry Estabrook’s book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, we learn the ugly truth about the tomato industry—especially Florida’s tomato industry.

Aside from Disney World, Florida is probably best known for its beaches. Unfortunately, Florida’s soil is too much like its beaches: it tends to be sandy. The key to healthy food is healthy soil and nutrient dense soil in Florida does not exist since sand holds no nutrition. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that “industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s…Meanwhile, it contains fourteen times as much sodium.”

Additionally, Florida’s climate is prone to pests because Florida winters are too mild to kill off insects and microorganisms. And the humid climate brings an abundance of fungal diseases. Considering this adverse growing environment, Florida is one of the last places tomatoes would naturally grow. But then there is nothing natural about Florida’s tomato industry.

So how does Florida grow a third of the fresh tomatoes Americans eat? They are grown by literally injecting the planting area with more than a hundred different chemical pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers. It should also be noted that the USDA has found residues of thirty-five pesticides on supermarket tomatoes. Compared to the California tomato industry, Florida uses five times more fungicides and six times more pesticides per acre. Plus, Florida uses some of the most toxic chemicals used in agribusiness including some that are carcinogenic (cancer causing), cause brain damage, disrupt the reproductive system and cause severe birth defects, and even kill a person outright with only brief exposure. By law, these chemicals require very specific application.

For years, the instructions were written in English despite the fact that most of the men and women working in the fields were Hispanic. Eventually, the instruction manuals and videos were offered in Spanish. However, most migrant workers speak Mixtec and other Amerindian dialects. One worker recounts how he was shown a video about proper application of pesticides. Despite the language barrier, he was able to understand that it was against the law to spray near people. Later, when spraying a row of tomatoes, he came near some pickers and moved to a different row. When questioned by the crew boss, the man cited the video. The crew boss answered, “I’m the law out here,” and ordered the man to go back and spray the previous row regardless of the people working there.

Sadly, this practice is the norm. The pickers are often soaking wet from the chemicals despite laws that restrict entry intervals following chemical applications. These laws exist for a reason: to protect the people from exposure to these poisons. The same man who was ordered to spray near pickers, later had to climb into a ditch of what he thought was water to spray a row. That night the man’s toenails fell off.

Tomatoland author, Barry Estabrook

Estabrook also tells the heartbreaking story of three pregnant Hispanic women. Each of these women worked in the tomato fields during their first trimesters of pregnancy. And each woman gave birth to a baby with severe birth defects. The first baby was born without arms or legs. The second was born with a deformed lower jaw which left the baby in danger of choking to death because his tongue was in constant danger of falling back into his throat. The third baby had one ear, no nose, a cleft palate, one kidney, no anus, and no visible sexual organs. At first, they thought the baby was a boy. Upon a very thorough examination, however, the doctors determined that the baby was in fact a girl. She only lived a few days.

Migrant workers picking tomatoes that are still green. 

But the atrocities don’t stop there. As chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, Doug Molloy said “South Florida’s tomato fields are ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Workers have been “sold,” beaten, held in chains, and pistol whipped. Those that have tried to escape unsuccessfully were beaten or worse. “Corpses of murdered farm-workers were not an uncommon sight in the rivers and canals of South Florida.” To make matters worse, most migrant workers don’t have a car. As a result, they have to live near the fields, “often paying rural slumlords exorbitant rents” for crammed, dirty, rat and roach infested, moldering trailers without heat or air conditioning. Anywhere else in America these so-called homes would be condemned. Molloy states that consumers who eat fresh tomatoes from a grocery store or fast food restaurant particularly in the winter are eating a fruit picked by the hand of a slave—period.


“The Tomatoman,” Tim Stark and his sustainably grown tomatoes.

But Estabrook’s Tomatoland isn’t all negative. He also reports on the positive changes that have taken place in the tomato industry and profiles Pennsylvanian Tim Stark known as “the Tomatoman.” Stark offers a much-needed contrast selling his pesticide-free and delicious tomatoes in New York City. He provides his staff with free housing, livable wages, and benefits. His company, Eckerton Hill Farm, demonstrates a viable business model for growing tomatoes sustainably, and also that consumers still prefer great-tasting tomatoes over their card-board cousins. By the way, taste is not even a consideration when it comes to breeding industrial tomatoes. Durability, however, is very important . (Did you know that an industrial tomato can withstand more impact than your car bumper?)

But speaking of taste, one Florida tomato grower said it doesn’t matter. “People just want something red to put in their salad.” This summer, dare to eat real tomatoes—if not from your backyard then a farmers’ market. Moreover, just say no to grocery store counterfeits. There is so much more to a tomato.