How the modern day tomato came to be
September 8th, 2011
09:10 AM ET
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For a response from the industry, read Why tomatoes grow in Florida

In the sultry summer heat, there are few flavors more welcome than that of a burstingly fresh, sloppy, sweet, tangy, locally grown tomato. In the winter, though, their grocery store equivalent is barely recognizable as the same fruit. They're hard, uniformly round and almost inevitably taste-free.

They're also mostly trucked in from Florida, where they're grown in some challenging agricultural conditions, and where the industry has come under scrutiny for their labor practices.

Barry Estabrook, author of 'Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit' spoke with Eatocracy about this came to be.

Eatocracy: How did you become invested in telling the story of the modern day tomato?

Estabrook: I became interested in tomatoes when I was in fact attacked by a group of tomatoes. I was driving down an interstate highway in Southwestern Florida and come up behind what I thought at first was a gravel truck. As I got closer, I saw what I took for Granny Smith apples - and I thought, "Those don't grow in Florida." When I got really close, I saw it was full of bright green tomatoes. No pink - just green.

I was mesmerized, and then the truck hit a bump. Three tomatoes came flying off and nearly went through my windshield. I noticed that they hit the pavement on I-75, bounced and then rolled into the ditch.

They didn't shatter, they didn't splatter; they stayed intact. I thought, "My God! What have they done to this wonderful fruit?"

Eatocracy: Are these the same round, red tomatoes that we see in grocery stores?

Estabrook: Winter tomatoes that we get in our grocery stores and in fast food places are picked when they're bright green. Any hint of coloration is treasonous in a Florida tomato field in the winter. The industry says they're "mature green" and supposedly might develop flavor, but there's no way the pickers can tell the difference between mature and immature.

These green tomatoes are taken back to a warehouse, packed in boxes, which are stacked on pallets and moved into storage areas where they're exposed to ethylene gas. The gas forces the tomatoes to turn the right color; it doesn't ripen them.

Eatocracy: Does this account for the lack of flavor in the modern day tomato?

Estabrook: There are two factors at work here. The first is that the tomatoes are picked when they're immature and no matter what you do, an immature tomato will never get any taste; though it might look alluring.

The second problem with industrial tomatoes is that for the last fifty years, they've been bred for one thing only, and that's yield. One farmer told me, "I get paid per pound. I don't get paid a cent for taste." Sadly, he was right.

Eatocracy: Why are consumers willing to put up with this?

Estabrook: I came across study after study that showed that tomatoes rank at or near the bottom of consumers' satisfaction lists. All I can guess is that grocery store tomatoes are food porn - in the literal sense. It looks pretty, it triggers memories, but it certainly doesn't deliver.

Eatocracy: What are the challenges to growing tomatoes in a climate like Florida?

Estabrook: I quickly learned that from a botanical and horticultural point of view, you would have to be a fool to try to grow tomatoes commercially in a place like Florida.

The main problem is that tomatoes' ancestors come from desert areas. They're adapted to extremely dry, low-humidity areas. That's why Southern Italy and parts of California are so good for tomatoes; it doesn't rain all summer. Florida is notoriously humid, which is just perfect conditions for all of the funguses, rusts, blights, insects and pests that destroy tomatoes.

That's why they have to use 110 different chemicals, fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides to even get a crop. Florida and California grow about the same amount of tomatoes. Florida uses eight times to get the same agricultural product.

The second problem with Florida is - I'm not even going to call it soil, because it isn't. Florida tomatoes are grown in sand. Just like the sand on Daytona Beach, it's great to wiggle your toes in, but it contains zero nutrients. None.

So they have to essentially pump in all the chemical food that the plant is going to need for its lifetime. Then they seal the row in plastic and hope they'll get a crop.

Eatocracy: Then what's the rationale behind growing tomatoes in Florida?

Estabrook: It has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with marketing. Florida is a day and a half or two days semi-trailer load from Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia - from two thirds of the country. And in the wintertime, they can get a crop.

That's the reason they're grown there. It’s the antithesis of local and seasonal.

Eatocracy: How do these tomatoes physically get from the field to the plate?

Estabrook: They've not invented a machine that can pick a tomato that's going to be sliced and eaten fresh. Canning tomatoes can be picked by machine; they may as well be apples and oranges. People have to do pick these by hand, and they're paid on a piece basis, by bucket of tomatoes.

You see these people out in the field, with bushel-basket sized buckets between their legs. It looks like one of those cartoon dogs digging, except that instead of dirt coming up, it's tomatoes. Their hands are pulling and pulling and pulling until they fill a bucket, which they run over to a nearby truck and empty it.

Eatocracy: Who are the workers?

Estabrook: They are primarily people from Southern Mexico, Northern Central America, Guatemala. United Farm Workers estimate that 70 percent of all farm workers in this country, not just tomato pickers, are undocumented immigrants.

Eatocracy: What are their working conditions like?

Estabrook: Slavery is what is happening. There is no way to gloss it. You can't say "slavery-like." You can't say "near-slavery." "Human trafficking" doesn't even do it credit. Here are some things that are in court records; it's all been proven.

People are being bought and sold like chattels. People are locked and shackled in chains at night in order to prevent them from escaping. People are being beaten severely if they're too tired to work, too sick to work or don't want to work hard enough. People are beaten even more severely or murdered if they try to escape. They receive little or no pay for their efforts.

That, to me, is slavery. It's like 1850, not 2011.

Eatocracy: How does a worker end up in this situation?

Estabrook: First of all, there have been 1,200 slaves freed in seven separate prosecutions in Florida in the last 15 years. The way that they get into slavery is often a slippery slope.

I talked to one guy who'd just crossed the border and hit the town of Immokalee, Florida. He was homeless and staying at a mission. He was standing outside and a guy pulled up in a pickup truck and said, "Hey, want work? I'll pay you?" and he named a price that was twice the going rate."

The man told him, "My mother cooks for the crew, and we'll just deduct that from your check, and you can even stay on my property; I've got some buildings. We'll just take that from your check."

This all sounded good, but you know what happens. Even though he picked enough tomatoes to supposedly get out of debt to his boss, he was never told that.

Everything cost money. It even cost him $5 to hose himself off with a backyard hose every day. There was plenty of liquor supplied at a very high price. He was kept enslaved for two and a half years before he broke out.

Eatocracy: How did he say he broke free?

Estabrook: This is telltale of the conditions they live under. He and three or four other slaves had been locked for the night in the back of the produce truck that was going to go out in the fields the next day. There was no toilet or running water.

As dawn broke, they noticed that there was a little gap between the rivets. He got on the shoulders of another man and they punched and kicked their way through the roof. He slid down the side of the truck and got a ladder so they rest of them could crawl out and run to safety.

Eatocracy: Have there been any health concerns for the workers?

Estabrook: Florida tomatoes can be sprayed with more than 100 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Some of them are what the Environmental Protection Agency calls "acutely toxic" - which is a nice way of saying they can kill you. The containers come with skulls and crossbones.

I talked to three or four dozen tomato workers during the course of my research and I'd ask them if they'd ever been sprayed. It was like asking them if they put their pants on one leg at a time. They'd say, "Of course! It happens every day." It's illegal, but it happens. Florida tomatoes have to be sprayed regularly or they'll die because of all the insects and diseases there.

Most workers now are first generation Hispanic, so they know there have been short term effects.

Eatocracy: Have there been more long-term cases studied?

Estabrook: Years ago, the workers were African American, and they didn't migrate - they stayed put.

There's an area in Central Florida, not far from Disneyworld, called Lake Apopka. In the 40s, someone got the idea of draining half the lake and planting crops in the muck. Then they decided to take it one step further and in the off season, re-flood the cropland. They thought it would help the fertility and kill off weeds and they kept doing that for four decades.

All the pesticides that were on the crops went into the water and were pumped back into the lake, then pumped back on the crops. Not only were there people working in those fields; they were living in trailers next to the fields.

Today, even though they haven't farmed in that area since 1998 because it became so bad, they closed the lake down, twelve years later these people are finding themselves with all sorts of immune diseases and endocrine disruptor related diseases. These have all been traced to pesticide exposure in animals. They have a rate of birth defects four times the Florida average.

In its wisdom, the Florida government provided millions of dollars to study water birds, and found out yes indeed, they'd been poisoned by these pesticides and it spent a million and a half to study the alligators of this area and found out they, too had reproductive harm - the male alligators' genitals were much smaller than normal.

It wasn't until this year that they set aside $500,000 to give to a little clinic that these 2500 workers could go to - and Governor Scott just vetoed it a few weeks ago.

The wealthy farmers received over $100,000,000 for the land. The workers got zip. These are American-born African Americans who have lived on this land for generations.

Eatocracy: Who are the farmers and who is overseeing this industry?

Estabrook: The system, is improving very slowly. It's a few enormous farming corporations - about a dozen companies grow 90 percent of Florida's commercial tomatoes. They farm thousands of acres.

The problem is that they build a firewall between themselves and the actual work in the fields by contracting out to these crew bosses. It gives them the opportunity to say, "Oh, shocked. Shocked! What's going on in my fields? I had no idea." They've farmed out the responsibility of managing their fields. Some of them are scrupulous. Some of them are not.

Eatocracy: These fields are not hidden; they are public and visible. How is this happening in plain sight?

Estabrook: This is happening in plain sight within a short drive from some of the wealthiest communities in the United States. There are traffic jams of yachts in Naples, Florida's harbor. There's a whistling of corporate jets flying in and out all the time.

You drive 40 minutes inland and you've entered a different world. It's like people don't see them.

In some cases it's because the workers don't want to be seen. They lack documentation, they're desperate. They want to work and send a bit of money home; that's all they want to do. They want to be invisible and stay near their community, or if they're in a camp out in the fields, they'll stay close to that.

They certainly won't go to the police, often because of their immigration status, or because in their home countries, the police are just thugs in uniform. They don't report these crimes.

Eatocracy: Has there been any successful prosecution on behalf of the workers?

Estabrook: There have been seven successful prosecutions in Southern Florida. In addition to that, pro-bono lawyers who work for the farm laborers have settled lawsuits with farmers for ten of millions of dollars in total. There were farmers who didn't pay the proper amount; even if they didn't have slaves, they didn't pay minimum wage.

Some good things have happened, but as an attorney down there told me, it's just the tip of an iceberg. It's very difficult to prosecute these cases; you need a witness. If you're enslaved and you get free - what I'd do is run as fast as I can to the border and get out of there.

Eatocracy: How much say are the workers given?

Estabrook: Some farmers sadly do view their workers as less than human. In fact, there's a grassroots organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and they approached a farmer a few years ago and asked if they could speak with him about conditions on his farm.

He looked at them and said, "My tractor does not tell me how to farm. So why should you?"

That was very, very telltale, and subsequently the workers had a demonstration and they all wore headbands that said "Yo no soy tractor" - which means "I am not a tractor."

Eatocracy: Has there been any more action on the part of the workers?

Estabrook: The small grassroots group based in Immokalee has been since 1993. Then, they'd get a small bunch of people together and go to a crew boss and say, "You know, you haven't paid this man this week. Could you do that now?" It was a one at a time type of thing.

Now they've grown and eventually one of the workers said, "Why don't we go after the end users? Why don't we go after the big corporations that buy the tomatoes from the farmers?"

They started a campaign against Taco Bell, asking them to pay a penny more per pound for the tomatoes. It's nothing to you or me, but that's the difference between $40-50 a day and $80 a day for a tomato picker. It's the difference between not being able to feed your family and a crummy, but okay salary. They asked for a penny a pound and a basic fair labor agreement.

After four years of boycotts and demonstrations and marches, Taco Bell agreed. And then they moved on to McDonald's. After a few years, it came onboard, and then Burger King and Subway and then all the big food service companies signed on and said, "We will do this."

Eatocracy: Has the tomato industry been responsive to these chances?

Estabrook: Finally, last year, the group that represents the tomato growers came to the Immokalee Workers and said they were aboard. So there's been a huge change.

There's a lot of work to do right now to implement these rules in the tomato fields, and they'll be introducing them over the next season or so to try to improve transparency so you can't have slaves. There will be improved grievance reporting so women aren't harassed; that's another big problem in the fields. Sexual harassment is rampant.

There will be shocking things like punch clocks in the fields, so you'll actually get real time, and even more shocking - tarpaulins put up so you can have a bit of shade when you have lunch.

Eatocracy: This sounds like a positive change. What's holding it back from happening industry-wide?

Estabrook: This is good. It's a sea change. But, the big problem is that although all these fast food joints and all of these food service companies that provide food to schools and hospitals and museums have signed on - with the exception of Whole Foods, not a single supermarket chain has signed this agreement. Not one.

It's as if the pipeline is built for this money and these rights to go to the workers, but the supermarkets are refusing to take part. So there are still people who are working under these awful conditions.

Eatocracy: Do you find from talking to so many people that if the general public knew about this, they'd be willing to pay more?

Estabrook: I think so. The last time I checked, a winter tomato in the supermarket near my house - a basic Florida round commodity tomato - cost $1.99 a pound. So what's $2 if it's going to end abuse in the fields and give a guy a decent living?

I think it's doable, because if you notice, at the supermarket, there's now a whole display of premium-priced tomatoes. It's $2-3 a pound for grape tomatoes or a tomato on the vine, so there are people willing to pay, and I think they'd be happy to spend a penny if they knew what it would do.

Eatocracy: Are all supermarket tomatoes grown under these reported conditions, or is it just the Florida rounds?

Estabrook: Grape tomatoes from Florida are grown under these conditions as well as the slicing rounds. Like I said, the only supermarket chain that has signed the agreement is Whole Foods. The rest - you have no guarantee that the tomato was picked by a person making a fair wage.

Eatocracy: What is the best course of action for a consumer who wants to make a change?

Estabrook: It's hard. The best course of action is, of course, to grow your own or go to the farmers market. Or if you're in your market, and you see tomatoes from your region in season, those are the best solutions.

Then the rest depends on you. You can talk to the produce manager and say, "I don't like this situation, and I don't want to buy tomatoes picked under these conditions."

No one in this country is going to suffer malnutrition as a result of not getting one of those pale, tasteless, hard winter tomatoes. Instead of buying three of those, buy one real tomato in season. You'll get more nutrients and a lot better tasting product.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has a website with activities and petition writing if you're so inclined. I'd like to think that someday, we'll be able to walk into a supermarket and get a tomato and know that the person who picked it is at least able to support his family.

For a response from the industry, read Why tomatoes grow in Florida

Previously - An ode to the tomato and mayo sandwich and Caprese: The only salad that matters right now

soundoff (239 Responses)
  1. Gemi

    I did my current event project on this and everybody wondered why i chose tomatoes. Then I presented, then they all knew why. Help spread the word! :)

    September 13, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  2. I. Mold

    Tomatoes are easy to grow in most of the country; some areas, like around Phoenix, have tomato hornworms that strip a plant in a day or two, but most areas don't really need any bug control. A yard helps, but they grow fine in pots, and hanging pots that have them growing upside down are available, and work very well. If you even have a porch or balcony with an apartment, you can grow your own tomatoes. I have 100 or more plants in my backyard every year; besides eating all I desire in season, it fills my freezer for winter cooking. And no harmful chemicals or illegal immigrants involved.

    September 13, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  3. SherylLynn

    Here I was thinking that "How the modern day tomato came to be" would actually be a story about the history of the tomato *sigh*

    September 13, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  4. deadbuggy

    This has just gobsmacked me beyond belief. I cannot understand how this kind of operation can still exist in our world today - and how naive of me!! I'm utterly horrified. But also this explains why I never liked tomatoes, until I started buying small-crop tomatoes only in season. Those mealy, tasteless monsters you get in restaurants and in grocery stores out of season are just cardboard. What's the point?? What's the point of having a product that is completely and utterly disgusting?? And ruining people's lives and the environment because of it?? I can't get my head around it!!

    September 12, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  5. FoolKiller

    "There was plenty of liquor supplied at a very high price. He was kept enslaved for two and a half years before he broke out." Seriously? He is confusing slavery with stupidity... and sadly he and many others will never escape that.

    September 12, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  6. Conrad Shull

    I grow my own in the summer in reasonable organic fashion (organic or inorganic fertilizer is irrelevant, but bug sprays are a no-no). And as for store bought food in general, I'm little concerned if it's organic or not. But in the winter, I choose organic tomatoes, simply because there is a better chance the varieties grown are better, and better cared for, than the green bombs the article talks about.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Barbara

      It's interesting to read that since the tomato growing season is short, we have to eat Florida tomatoes "or do without" most of the year. We grow as many tomatoes as we can on our small lot, and produce enough to gourge ourselves on all summer, plus share some with our loved ones and put up a bit of sauce and salsa. Last weekend, we bought a case of fresh tomatoes at the farmer's market and, a couple of hours later, had them all canned for winter use in sauces and soups. We'll get another case this weekend for salsa to get us through the winter. And that will be it, until next year when fresh, vine-ripened, organically, locally grown tomatoes are available again. But we WON'T be "doing without", because we'll be eating seasonal greens, turnips, beets, carrots, brocolli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, etc., etc., etc – and enjoying every mouthful! For us, tomatoes will always be the highlight of summer's bounty, but when the season changes, there is always another major star ready to capture our attention. The idea that we must have fresh summertime food available all year round is where change needs to occur

      September 14, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  7. NicolasNaranja

    ...and if you think it's bad in Florida, check out what's going on in Mexico. The labor abuse and slavery that go on over there make anything happening in Immokalee look decent. Also, labor is not contracted out to build a wall, it is contracted out in order to guarantee a supply. Contractor X has 100 workers and he picks your field, your neighbors field, and that corporate field down the street. Do you know how difficult it would be for each farmer to find 100 people to have around for a 2 week job.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  8. lovep.c.fl

    The way this person is hating on Florida, I think there's a more subliminal issue here that has nothing to do with tasteless tomatoes or cheap labor. Somebody didn't get laid on spring break.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Native Floridian@lovep.c.fl

      LOL! You are so right!

      September 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Barbara

      Seriously? Who are you working for? I've actually read Barry Estabrook's book, and it is NOT about a guy who hasn't been laid and wants to "hate on" Florida. Even just reading the article, I didn't get that at all. Does trivializing someones work and research make the results false?

      September 14, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
  9. fuyuko

    Two things. Tomatoes are tough to transport when ripe. American customers are picky, and won't buy a fruit that doesn't look perfect, so farmers are kind of in a bind. If they ship ripe fruit, people won't buy and it might go bad. Second. Tomatoes are really easy to grow in a greenhouse, or during the summer months. They grow fine in planters. Not everyone has the climate, but many do. So- growing tomatoes really shouldn't be that difficult and obtaining fresh ones should be easy for some.

    September 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • John

      These are not "farmers" in Florida but corporations. Don't smear a good farmer's reputation with what is happening in the corporate farming industry

      September 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  10. Case

    It would seem that if the farmers didn't have 70% of undocumented workers to work in their fields and instead had to hire 100 % documented workers they would have to pay alot more to those workers. Eliminate the illeagles and reduce the problem. If the all the workers were paying taxes the government would know how much they were getting paid when they filed, and would be able to go after farmers that were paying below minium wage. They could list all the absured fees and expenses they had to pay the farmer on their tax forms. In this way the govt. would know how bad these people were getting ripped off and go after the farmers.

    September 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  11. Tabitha

    Personally i believe that if we had stricter enforcement on illegal immigrants they would be out of this country and therefore unavailable for slave labor. Farmers would be required to hire US citizens and Americans don't put up with this bull crap. This whole issue would be a non issue as the only reasons it happens are that the workers don't complain or get law enforcement involved. Americans aren't afraid of being deported. Maybe if the illegals are continually treated this badly they might find it beneficial to go home.

    And dont scream at me that i am racist. I dont give a damn about race. Facts are facts and ILLEGALS are ILLEGAL. They pay no taxes. They steal benefits they are not entitled to being as they are here ILLEGALLY.

    I wont pay an extra penny to ensure they get better wages.

    September 12, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • John

      Your are WRONG!!! Anyone working for an employer in the U.S. pays taxes, does not matter if they are legal or illegal. In fact, I can make a case that the more illegals we allow to work the better our Social Security is funded,. Illegals can't get any of the money out of SS.

      September 12, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
      • José@John

        Whoa there li'l fella. Illegals, as you refer to them, are frequently paid under the table, therefore do not pay taxes.

        +2 points for passion
        -10 points for misinformation

        September 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
      • Nan

        Most illegal aliens work for cash. The ones that don't are using a dead guys number. The corporate farmers have lists of dead peoples numbers which they hand out to the workers. The dead folks can't complain, and the taxes keep rolling in, so the IRS doesn't do anything to stop this abuse of number use.

        September 12, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Mike

      It's creepy to see people (people who break the law every day, I might add) try to turn a story about such misery into a soapbox for their bigoted views.

      September 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
      • Meissels

        Are you referring to the "farmers" or the farm workers?

        September 12, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • JPS

      Tabitha, your right wing, Tea Party thinking is skewed. The issue here is NOT illegal immigration. You can't make your life better by holding the rest of the world down. The issue here is unchecked American corporate greed! Those are the parasites who are the cause of America's downward spiral. Prosecute the guilty and tax the rich! To me a flat rate tax plan makes a whole lot more sense than a balanced budget amendment designed to break the back of the middle and working class.

      September 13, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Barbara

      Hey, instead of blaming the illegals, what if we had stricter enforcement on the CORPORATE "farmers" that knowingly hire them and either pay them under the table or provide them is ss numbers so they'll look "real", and then expolit the h**l out of them! I have a LOT of respect and admiration for REAL farmers, but corporate American companies are destroying them one by one with these, and many other, tactics!

      September 14, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  12. Gary

    I don't see what the issue is here. The bottom line of capitalism is that any product that creates and fulfills a demand is worthy. If these tomatoes were SO bad people would not buy them. As long as people continue to buy them they are a successful product. Period. If consumers don't like it they won't buy it. As for workers' conditions, again, the bottom line is to minimize costs and maximize profits. If they don't like it they can go elsewhere. The talk of "slavery" was clearly an exaggeration: I, too, am "chained" to my workplace by the clock and obligation to work – hard. And if these people are illegal immigrants they don't even have the right to be in the US – so there is no obligation to treat them as normal US citizens. if they don't like it, then again, they can leave.

    September 12, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Craig

      Gary, you are a lost cause.

      September 12, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  13. JR

    I just want to say that all of the politics and hoo haa are irrelevant when it comes to vegetables. Just take a little time and grow some yourself. You don't need a field, a single raised bed in a full sun area or a handful of containers on a patio can grow a goodly amount of veggies and herbs.

    I was raised by Midwestern parents in CA in an urban area with a tiny backyard and never ate a storebought tomato until I was going to restaurants on my own. Till some soil with some chicken manure (or the organic fertilizer of your choice) and get growing. Even in an apartment years later, I could grow things on the balcony. Now in my own home in a far away state, I can do it.

    Get a few books,, learn some basics with each thing that you want to grow and give it a shot. It's not hard, it just takes a little commitment to do some lightweight weeding, and keep the things watered. Sunshine, the occasional pest battle and you're good to go.

    I'm not a political gardener, in fact it's probably the place where I'm the most apolitical. Gardening is about the plants, not about people. I'm also lazy and not into things like double digging trenches and all of that ridiculousness, so 'lasagne gardening' is the way to go. I don't even do that religiously, just try to roughly balance some 'greens' and 'browns'. Same goes for compost. Guess what, it still works.

    These are plants, you're not baking a souffle. It's not that precise, it doesn't have to suck all of your time nor your soul. If you kill a plant from ineptitude, you've learned something. Try again. Start with cheap plants. LOL That way you don't sob if you kill it. Try, try, again.

    The problem with this stuff is that people treat it like it's some lofty, political, complicated, massively involved thing and the reality is, it's the opposite.

    Best advice is to buy local plants to start with if you know zip about gardening. It's readily available, it's cheap, and it's a learning experience. I've even got my 14 year old to start growing herbs in her bedroom window. Nothing like yelling for some basil for the spaghetti sauce and having it handed to me fresh to make your palate go AHHHHHHHHHHHH.

    Gardening is not an all or nothing, thing. You don't have to go 'all in' to get some results. Just try one container of one thing and see what happens.... One word of caution, growing your own stuff can be a bit addicting.

    September 12, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Shelly

      Nice suggestion, JR, but what about us people who live in the Midwest and can't grow our own tomatoes in the winter when it's -20 degrees outside with a windchill of -15? Guess us people in the cold states have to eat the chemical-ridden Florida tomatoes, or hope we can find CA tomatoes in our local supermarkets.

      September 12, 2011 at 11:41 am |
      • PlainJane88

        I agree with JR that it's fairly easy to learn (and every year gets better) and it's addicting. But Shelly... I live in PA where I can grow fabulous tomatoes in the summer, none in the winter. Here's what I do for the winter. Since I grow a lot (for my family of 5, I had 21 tomato plants this year – in the local park garden plot for $25 per year, tomatoes took up 1/3 of my plot). I start by seed inside and save previous seed packets and that saves money too since I'm not buying plants). But with my harvest, I make sauce and tomato paste and freeze it. I roast them and freeze it. I dehydrated some. You can also can them but I'm still a beginner (only my 2nd year having a bigger garden) and busy with 3 small children. So we'll have our homegrown tomatoes all year – I don't have to buy any tomatoes in the winter!
        I'm really happy that I'm not contributing to the problem (for once)! There's nothing like homegrown and also supporting our local farmers and farm-stands for food. AND it's saved me money, buying directly from the farms and farm-stands what I cannot grow is cheaper than buying all of my food at the supermarket. This idea that eating this way is more expensive. I've found it to be more frugal.

        September 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
      • JR

        Guess what, I'm now living in the Midwest and growing tomatoes. You grow em in the summer and then blanch/freeze them. Btw, even in CA (at least in the nothern part), you're not growing maters year around.

        Btw, plainjane's answer to you was great and so I don't need to repeat it.

        September 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
      • JR

        Just also let me add that there was a learning curve for me when I moved here. I'm adding this because my last post looked like it could be taken in a flip way, and it's not meant to be. My first winter in the Midwest was sort of depressing and I had to figure out when I could do what because of the different zones.

        But even places that have the worst winters and short growing seasons can do tomatoes, at least in the summer. Most especially if you start them yourself, inside. Get a few weeks of a hot spell, and have several containers and you can end up with more tomatoes than you know what to do with.

        And no, it doesn't solve the 'what do you eat in February' issue, but it's better than eating store bought, year around.

        /my two cents

        September 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Barbara

      Wait! It DOES solve what to eat in February! Eat what's in season in your local area. In many parts of the country, there may not be much local and fresh available in February, so many of us are eating hardy soups and sauces from ingredients we "put up" during the warmer months. But still, with a couple of raised, covered beds, we ARE eating fresh kale, collards and maybe some carrots, turnips or beets during the cold months. Why would anybody EXPECT a tomato sandwich in February?? Our ancestors sure didn't!

      September 14, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  14. Ozarkhomesteader

    We need to return to boycotts. I don't buy winter tomatoes nor do I go to Taco Bell because they just aren't worth it, but a nationwide boycott beyond a single fast food place really seems to be the solution.

    September 12, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • JR

      The solution is what our parents did, grow yer own maters.

      September 12, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  15. Chris C from the D

    My father and grandfather always kept a garden and in the summer, our family enjoyed wonderfully fresh and delicious fruits and veggies, including tomatoes. So, imagine how confused I was when I would be in the grocery store's produce section with my mother in the winter months...seeing the barely red round things that were labeled as tomatoes. The greater shock came when it was time to eat these monstrosities. One afternoon after eating a sandwich with the offending tomoates, I asked my mom why were they so nasty and she looked at me as if she was thinking the exact same thing. We never bought store tomatoes anymore.

    We need to do our best to NOT request out-of-season produce. That's the only way things will change.

    September 12, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Mark

      Hear, hear! Thank you for the story and comment. Wonderful!

      September 12, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  16. superfancy

    "we don't get paid for taste"

    in nj the tasty ones - local, heirloom, or even greenhouse grown - cost double the supermarket tomatoes, 1.99 vs. 3.99.

    "Eat better/eat less"

    September 12, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  17. HPNIII

    It would figure that a low life farmer was at the bottom of the problem, they brought in the blacks and now the Mexicans.

    September 12, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • Uther Pendragon

      You left out food. They brought that too.

      September 12, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • LilRed

      I just want to comment to the people who are referring to the "farmer" as the offending party. The people who are growing these tomatoes are not Farmers. They are corporations. There is a huge difference between a farmer and an overseer who has the best interests of a group of stockholders in mind as opposed to a farmer who cares about the produce and his agricultural practices. The farmer, by definition cultivates (fosters the growth of) the crops and the lands. These corporations are only raping the land and creating a disgusting imitation of a beautiful and tasty fruit.

      So can we please not use the word "Farmer" when referring to the corporations. It's highly offensive to REAL farmers. Thanks!

      September 13, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
      • Barbara


        September 14, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  18. Grumpster

    Does this apply to Florida Orange Juice as well? I hate tomatoes, but this makes me hate them more.

    September 12, 2011 at 6:58 am |
  19. Garden Attempter

    If we have a bad crop we just don't eat anything needing tomatos until the next year. We like the Roma tomatos. Grind em up and can them. Makes a great but thicker "juice" for soups, stews, and sauces. The old man next door (85 and going strong) always has an overabundance of Romas. He puts some directly from the vine to the freezer. In the winter he thaws and slices them just like they were fresh. They do not turn watery or soggy like you would think they would and they have way more flavor than the "tomatos" you can buy at the store.

    September 12, 2011 at 12:55 am |
  20. Smartest

    You are all stupid sheep. I wish the earth would vomit every last one of you into the sun. Take your pathetic understanding of the world around you and shove it in your tomato holes.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • Dill Weed

      A bg stool doesn't always mean a clogged toilet.

      Palin Bachmann 2012

      September 11, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
      • TurdRoller

        Wrong u ar, Dilly: either one of the twin-turds, Sarah or Michele, would clog an industrial strength crapper. Much less both of them. You betcha.....

        September 12, 2011 at 3:03 am |
  21. BigMacAmmoniaMeal

    If you refrigerate an unripe tomato you stop the fermenting process and you end up with a tasteless fruit. A too soon picked tomato will ripen as long as it is kept at room temperature and allowed to naturally ferment. Shipping unripe tomatos here in refrigerated trucks stops the sugaring process inside the fruit, leaving you with a pretty but tasteless red ball. That is the reason tomato farmers are done harvesting in the northeast after the temp falls below 40 degrees.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  22. Patrick

    Thank you for making what could have been an interesting piece on Tomatoes into a political statement. If I wanted a tirade on slavery there are other forums than Eatocracy.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  23. Alex Zorach

    This was a really informative article. Articles like this are great, as they can prod us in the direction of returning to a healthier, more sustainable food supply.

    September 11, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • Best Tomatoes

      The best tomatoes are grown in southern ontario – by far the best tasting – and with the greenhouse industry making great advances – even greenhouses tomatoes are almost as good as field.

      September 11, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  24. James McVoy

    I'm confused – these tomatoes are terrible but we are supposed to pay more for them?

    September 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  25. kathy

    A number of thoughts crossed my mind as I read this: 1. Ohio used to be the Tomato Capital. Wonder what happened to that. 2. Don't believe the illegal alient torture crap. And the words are ILLEGAL ALIEN, emphasis on the word ILLEGAL. It is most certainly not undocumented immigrant. 3. If one thing the illegals are good at, it's disseminating information. Surely they know all the torture & shabby conditions (wink, wink) that await them here, yet they come anyhow. Gee, let's see, what could possssssibly be the draw? Free h/care, free good, free childcare, free WIC, free housing. Oh, I don't know, that is just a few......4. I have had it with the poor farmer routine too. Having lived in farm country for about 19 years in the midwest, I can tell you they love to spin a tall tale about how poor they are, but believe me, they are not telling Jane Consumer so much about their business & lifestyle (and bank accounts!). Awww, the poor farmer. Whine.......5. Lastly, I echo the idea of growing your own crops if you can, even in containers. So many good "container gardening books" you can even check out at your local library. Then can, can, can them!

    September 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • b


      September 11, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • b

      That's sarcasm, in case you didn't get it. I'm guessing from the ignorance spewing from your post that you're not quite bright enough to understand. I'LL PRAY FOR YOU.

      September 11, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  26. Cameron

    I had no idea how awful these conditions were. My roommate had planted a tomato garden and we've been eating fresh tomatoes for so long that when I did buy some from the store, they were so bland that it seemed pointless to eat them. And it takes all that exploitation for a valueless, nutritionless juiceball? Ugh, no thanks.

    September 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  27. Drogo, who bit the dust

    The entire story seems a little over the top. Where is law enforcement in Florida?

    Obviously Florida's elected official are on top of this problem.

    September 11, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Nan

      HAHA. Good question. Where's Florida's law enforcement? Answer : Drinking coffee and flirtin" with a waitress, no doubt. Actually, Florida's cops are far too occupied with Florida's huge DRUG trafficking problem to worry about what's going on in some damned Tomato field.

      September 12, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  28. Wastrel

    I don't buy tomatoes any more. I'm old enough to remember when the ones from the store had a taste, and I've grown my own, which taste a lot better than the ones you can buy.

    Regarding the workers, the focus seems to be on improving their working conditions and pay, and there's a lot of hand-wringing and wondering "how can this be?" It's happening because we allow illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants are powerless to complain about how much they make or their working conditions. They are here for the rich people - including rich farmers. Deport them, fine and imprison the people who hire them, and we can start getting back to our basic American values of freedom and equality.

    September 11, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  29. Sonya

    It won't take me very much effort to stop buying supermarket tomatoes. They are absolutely awful. I can't understand why none of the supermarket chains will sign on for a penny more for the workers. I find that to be pretty lousy as well. Everybody wants something for nothing. Next year I am definitely going to grow my own tomatoes. I don't want my infant son to be exposed to all of the chemicals and pesticides in those tiny toxic Florida tomatoes. Yuck! Maybe having growing up in Florida and eating a lot of Florida tomatoes is what caused me to get thyroid disease.

    I'm so glad that Mr. Estabrook wrote this book and CNN covered it. For me the mystery of the horrible supermarket tomato has finally been solved. Not only do I feel bad for the workers, I know now that I have to steer clear of them for good due to their toxicity and the farmer's use of dangerous/unfair labor practices, slavery and God knows what else.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:01 am |
  30. JehseaLynn

    This is very enlightening. Thank you for educating me, CNN. I will be purchasing my tomatoes at Whole Foods from now on. I will also be raising some hell and putting on the pressure at all the other markets's produce sections, talking with both department and store managers in an attempt to get them to sign this agreement to ensure fair wages to those who lsbor under the hot, unwavering sun to bring in our produce. And, God help the US, to hopefully be one more voice in the struggle to END slavery once and for all!

    September 11, 2011 at 1:56 am |
  31. Fiona

    I'm calling BS on this guy. The correct word is "chattel," not "chattels," for one thing. But workers "shackled" at night? I don't believe him. It's true that Florida isn't an optimum place to grow a lot of the produce that's grown there (citrus does better in a drier environment) but inappropriate agriculture exists all over. Rice is grown in dry California, for heaven's sake. If you want to take a position on fair wages and safe working conditions for farm workers, environmental and consumer safety regarding pesticides, and eating mindfully, then eat organic food that is produced locally. Of course, if you take that literally, most of us in the US will have to go without bananas, coffee, sugar, mangos, papayas, and pineapple. An awful lot will have to forgo apples and citrus. Wheat products? Forget it, southern states. It gets ridiculous. Do the best you can in choosing your food options, to the extent that you can afford it. Don't buy those rock-hard tomatoes. There are healthy alternatives, even off season. I live in a prime agricultural region of California, where a Japanese hothouse tomato - produced within 40 miles of my home– is available year-round. It's so delicious that I even buy it in the summer.

    September 10, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
    • RichardHead@Fiona

      I really don't want to call BS on you,but I must. Both threads state that the majority of tomato's come from Florida ( 40-45 %) during the winter months....Total BS. Unless you can walk into your Japanese Hot house and pick your own...They came through Mexicali..from Mexico. Yes,that leaves 50-55% found in the Supermarkets during winter months,from Mexico. Major entry Ports....Mexicali,Nogales,Az. and McAllen,TX. Cold storage warehouses in McAllen,TX are building additions to their properties,which will be the #1 importers of produce for the U.S. within 2 years. Need a source? Houston Chronicle 3 weeks ago. I not only haul your produce to all points North...I protect it. Clean and sanitized trailer,temperature controlled and checked every 3 hours with an instant read thermometer,and I have to make sure it is loaded properly so nothing gets squished. It is my job, I have to eat all of this stuff too. I can't tell you if the produce has e-coli or anything else,I can assure you though,that many truck drivers like me,take our jobs very seriously and move this product safely across the U.S. to warehouses every day. After we drop it off,flip a coin.

      September 11, 2011 at 12:45 am |
      • Amy

        Thank you for your response – I live in the Pacific Northwest, and I was curious if our tomatoes also come from Florida, since I have seen many signs at my local grocery store advertising tomatoes from Mexico. I would also like to personally thank you for the time and effort you put into your job.

        September 11, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
      • Fiona

        RichardHead, nothing you posted has anything to do with what I posted. BS right back atcha. Try to read more carefully before you reply to posts.

        September 12, 2011 at 2:43 am |
  32. MAES

    This is just disgusting. I knew that the tomato was nasty in winter but that many of the owners are so vile too – disgusting!
    No more Florida grown tomatoes on anything I eat. I will just order no tomato everywhere that cannot show and tell me that Florida was NOT the place of origin.

    September 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  33. Susan

    Just like southern plantations made all their money off the backs of slaves, while belles dressed to the nines. I can't believe really EXACTLY the same thing goes on in this day and age. Shame on you, Florida. I will definitely look harder at the tomatoes I am buying (or not buying, in the case of winter).

    September 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  34. Vic in Florence

    Florida grocery store tomatoes are tasteless. I live in Florida, so I know. Homegrown is very difficult – sandy soil and too hot as the author states. I'm in Florence, Italy, in vacation. I went to one of the local grocery stores and saw 2 kilos of ripe Roma tomatoes for only €0,98. That's works out to about 32¢ a pound. They were solid, bright red, and delicious. Other varieties can be had at Florence's Central Market. We need more farmers’ markets in the U.S.

    September 10, 2011 at 3:59 am |
    • Fiona

      Huh? Farmers' markets carry locally grown produce. So how would having more farmers' markets magically bring those wonderful Tuscan tomatoes to your home state? Where I live I can shop a FM six days out of seven, in various locations within 35 miles from my home. The produce sold there can be fabulous, but it's far from cheap. In fact, it generally runs a good deal higher than the equivalent produce sold at my local, high-end, natural foods grocery store.

      September 10, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
  35. Tomato bob

    When planting a tomato plant put a hard boil egg with a small crack in the bottom of the hole and put your plant on top and fill in the soil. You will have the best tasting tomato. Here in Wisconsin we have tomato called Wisconsin which is great tasting. Also try Big Boy or Better Boy great for BLT sandwiches. Put egg shells in water overnight then use water for your plants. Amazing results. Been growing tomatoes for over fifty years. Go Badgers, Go Packers!

    September 9, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Mike

      I did a test of this this summer with 2 plants...1 with egg, 1 without. The difference is amazing!

      September 10, 2011 at 8:07 am |
      • Mike

        Also...Go Blue! Go Badgers :p Boo Packers

        September 10, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  36. Beth

    Food like medical care in the US has become a product subject to the bottom-line of profits not people. Maybe Marx and Engels were right about capitalism? And, what would Jesus do?

    September 9, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Umptysquat

      Finally someone brought religion into the argument.. wheeew..

      September 11, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  37. Katran Miller

    Holy cow. I'm glad I grow my own tomatoes, but that doesn't help these poor workers!

    September 9, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  38. jim armstrong, fayetteville,nc

    We have become germans at the end of WWIi "We knew there was some sort of camp out there, never guessed it was a slave labor/torture/medicalexperiment/death camp." the solution? THERE IS NONE, we have become THAT callous. Grow your own food is one answer, but you KNOW how far THAT goes. The low life who treat ANYONE like slaves like those growers do are less than human themselves, they prove THAT every day they do it. REAL men wouldn't treat someone who works for them like they do. Goes for their bosses (the ownrs) too. oh well it will go on because ot the average so=called 'american' don't give a crap as long as the tomatoes are in the store, artifical or not.

    September 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
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