Why tomatoes grow in Florida
September 8th, 2011
09:05 AM ET
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Read – How the modern day tomato came to be

Author Barry Estabrook's book 'Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit' addresses some concerns over the conditions in which modern day tomatoes are harvested, and takes direct aim at the quality of the Florida-produced product.

We spoke with the Florida Tomato Committee's manager Reggie Brown to get his side of this complex story.

Eatocracy: In his book 'Tomatoland,' Barry Estabrook describes climate conditions in Florida that don’t seem to be conducive to growing tomatoes. What went into the decision to grow tomatoes in Florida?

Reggie Brown: We grow tomatoes in Florida because it is a viable business. Florida is the only place in the continental United States where we can produce tomatoes for many months of the year, and because of the fact that we like producing tomatoes and providing American jobs for Americans in America.

The folks and family businesses that I work for have been growing tomatoes for generations in Florida. Yes, there is no questions that there are challenges, but there is good science and good technology that allows us to be successful and competitive in that process here.

We’re proud to be growing and providing American citizens with tomatoes in periods of the year when they’d either be buying imported products from Mexico or some other part of the world. We’re supporting American farmers growing food for America.

Eatocracy: How much of the United States do you supply with tomatoes?

Reggie Brown: In the winter period, we are the primary source of fresh tomatoes in the United States. We compete directly with the Mexican industry that is the other primary supplier of tomatoes in the U.S. We grow about 40 to 45 percent of the fresh tomatoes that are grown in the United States.

Eatocracy: Exactly what kind of quantity is that?

Reggie Brown: A typical crop here in Florida – of course we’ve had some weather here the past couple of years - is somewhere between 40 and 50 million 25-pound equivalents. It’s the largest vegetable crop here in the state of Florida – which is the number two vegetable producing state second only to California. It has a typical value in the neighborhood of 500 to 600 million dollars.

Eatocracy: How many major tomato growers are there in Florida?

Reggie Brown: The tomato industry is made up of about 50 to 75 producers, and about 15 or so large companies that are family-owned and generationally operated here in Florida.

Eatocracy: Mr. Estabrook’s book described some labor conditions that were inhumane. Is this characterization accurate?

Reggie Brown: First of all, those accusations are fundamentally inaccurate. Mr. Estabrook makes reference to the Navarette case, that was a fairly recent case of an illegal immigrant enslaving another illegal immigrant for that illegal immigrant’s gain. Those cases were not directed at or involving anyone in the commercial tomato industry. It was a rogue individual enslaving his fellow citizens who were also illegal - from Guatemala or wherever the individuals happened to be coming from.

There are a number of cases that are referenced in the book of supposed slavery taking place in agriculture in Florida. None of those cases directly involves any commercial producers of tomatoes here in the state.

Eatocracy: Are there guidelines in place to ensure that each individual tomato producer is operating within your organization’s standards?

Reggie Brown: There are government regulatory programs such as wage an hour, or routinely visiting producers. Our producers, for the better part of five or six years now have been audited by third party audit companies for social accountability and working conditions for their employees.

Those processes involve interviewing private location employees in their native languages to ensure that those kinds of accusations are not grounded and are not taking place in this industry.

Just last October, our industry joined in an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for a code of conduct and a verification program that will be collaboratively put in place between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and our industry.

The fact in reality is that Florida tomato industry is probably without a doubt the most progressive, socially accountable produce industry in the entire country. It’s the same kind of position this industry has taken in the past decade in the area of food safety.

We have an aggressive, progressive food safety program here in Florida, producing tomatoes to minimize the risk of any kind of a food safety problem with tomatoes to the extent that we have actively worked with state government, with the educational immersion community and with our industry partners throughout the country in creating a standardized safety audit guideline process. It is in fact accepted, recognized and posted on the Food and Drug Administration’s website as a functional guidance document for handling tomatoes and minimizing the safety risk.

We are certainly not the kind of industry that Mr. Estabrook would present to you in his book.

Eatocracy: Could you talk about the use of chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, in your industry?

Reggie Brown: Mr. Estabrook makes the statement that – I believe he said there were over 100 compounds used. That is not factual. There may be 100 compounds that are registered for use by the Environmental Protection Agency, and those registration processes the risk, hazards and efficacy of those compounds where used for these specific purposes for which they were designed. Simply having that number of compounds registered by no means represents the number of compounds that are used to produce a crop.

This industry in the last 20 years has been a pioneer in the process of raising crops. We routinely scout, diagnose and use compounds very prescriptively – similar to what you would do by going to a physician. Even though there may be 100 antibiotics registered for human use, your physician looks at your illness, prescribes in his professional opinion what the effective antibiotic may be for the particular problem you have, and with that diagnosis writes you a recommendation for use.

We do very much the same thing in producing these crops. We have professional scouts, professional expertise that weekly look at these crops, review the problems that exist and then prescribe or recommend specific compounds that address those specific needs.

There is no wholesale, indiscriminate use of pesticides in existence in this business. First of all, the compounds are expensive, they have very specific functions in terms of what organisms or problems they address. If you don’t prescribe the correct compound or use for the problem, you don’t produce a crop.

When we’re investing $9000 to $10,000 an acre to produce a crop of tomatoes, it behooves us to be stewards of those resources. And that is how modern, science-based production agriculture operates.

Eatocracy: How do you respond to the prevailing notion that the tomatoes that are picked green and produced out of Florida don’t have the taste that people associate with fresh, ripe tomatoes?

Reggie Brown: If you look at the statistics, gardening is one of America’s great hobbies. Everyone has had an emotionally attaching experience at some point in their life, whether it’s one that you had personal sweat equity in or grew, or it’s one that your grandfather or mother or father handed you in the garden – that wonderfully ripe fruit.

Your memory marked those flavors. The variation, the complexities within a tomato are extremely wide – not only in color but texture, aromas, acidity, sugar content and shape. Those kinds of things that you become attached to as a tomato connoisseur that are emotionally tied to that tomato are not reproducible. What in reality happens is that there is no perfect tomato.

We produce a product in Florida that is a high quality, safe, wholesome tomato that is capable of withstanding the rigors of the marketplace, that provides America with a product for six or seven months out of the year – sometimes longer – in areas of the country where they would otherwise be totally devoid of tomatoes.

Is it an absolute one on one replacement for Mr. Estabrook’s tomatoes that he has sweated in upstate Vermont and has available to him for three or four weeks in an entire year? I would not tell you it is.

But it is a very good product when handled properly. That means don’t take it home and stick it in the refrigerator and chill it down below 55 degrees because you create a biological phenomenon that collapses the quality of the fruit, that changes the texture and the flavor and it will taste like cardboard if you handle it improperly.

Properly handled, our product is the product that America buys and enjoys. But it is not a replacement for your home garden product that you nurtured for eight or nine weeks or longer to produce.

Read – How the modern day tomato came to be

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

soundoff (40 Responses)
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    June 24, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  2. Keith in SoJax

    Wow, there are sure a lot of people with harsh, overly negative opinions on this page. Pesticides are not necessarily carcinogenic. US EPA requires extensive testing prior to approving any pesticide. By the way, read the Gas Pump warnings the next time you fill up, that should be a reality check for ya! Anyway, the harsher the chemical, the longer the mandatory re-entry interval for workers. Growers work hard to find alternatives to the pesticides with long re-entry intervals because they make it hard to complete the tasks required to produce the crop. Fumigants are standard fare in Agriculture for high value crops. Without them, many common crops you find on the shelf at the grocery store simply wouldn't exist. For those touting Organic, get a grip. 2/3 of the world's population would starve if we went 100% organic because yields decline. If you can afford organic and its available, go for it. Just be aware that its a faith not based on facts. Plants cannot discern between organically derived nutrients and non-organic. Furthermore, food safety concerns with organics is every bit as serious as non-organic. The e-coli contaminated spinach that killed people a few years back was contaminated by "organic" fertilizer...cow manure. Before you buy the hype book, take a minute an google organic chemistry. Its not based on faith, its based on carbon. What an illiterate lot we've become!

    October 18, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  3. 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, in our opinion.

    September 14, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  4. Spektor

    A lot of hype from the industry. She repeated "American" like 20 times. Please. Almost all the workers are migrants, and no one else would put up with that kind of dangerous labor anyway. I read Tomatoland and will think twice before ever buying a (non-organic) Florida tomato again. They grow the plants in sand, pumped full of pesticides, herbacides and fungicides, to sterillize the sand - and then they pump in large doses of fertilizer and plant the seedlings. Then later, they douse the plants with sprays of pesticides that also get all over the workers (read the book). The price is far too high just for a seasonal vegetable. There are some organic Florida tomatoes available, however if you want a non-organic tomato, it's far better to just buy local produce during warm weather, and use canned tomatoes or other vegetables during winter.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  5. Marsha Killington, Colonial Heights VA

    Actually I think it was a fun and lively exchange. Even some of the comments were smart, which you certainly can't take for granted. All that said, if you've ever tasted a locally-grown 'heirloom' tomato, you'll never go back to store-bought crap. Simple as that :)

    September 12, 2011 at 6:06 am |
  6. J.C.

    I hope Mr. Brown didn't get motion sickness from all that spinning.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  7. Dlogo

    We are in love with only a certain TYPE of home grown tomato based on our memories?? Really??
    Real tomatoes taste good and are fragrant.. This crap they sell off season might as well be plastic.. Flavorless, hard plastic crap.. Thank McDonalds and Booger King for requiring the overfarming and production of this tasteless obomination..

    September 8, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  8. Byrd

    Why? Because the EPA was so financially gutted and filled with mindless Bush morons that they somehow think it's fine to kill everything in the soil in order to protect their tainted. poisoned products. Eat your own poison, Monsanto.

    September 8, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  9. jen

    ps. his wording was so amusing...."american jobs for americans" etc. he just used all the 'buzzwords' to protect his own a**. he is probably one of hte companies the author talked about that hire out their farm labor, so when a case is brought to attention about illegal workers/poor conditions, etc. he can claim "i had no idea!"

    September 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  10. jen

    since a fully ripened tomato is so finicky....i suggest you BUY LOCAL and support your local farmers by purchasing their tomatoes. and stock up at the end of season to dry, can, freeze etc so you can enjoy all year round. for more info i suggest reading animal, vegetable, miracle by barbara kingsolver. i am re-reading for the 3rd time!!

    September 8, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  11. Semantics

    Arr! Thar be a fine tale, mateys!

    September 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Markus

      WTH? Laughing!

      September 8, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Yee Olde Troll

      By jove, my good chap, I do say that tale was fascinating.

      September 8, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  12. Immokalee

    Why does it sound like he is bragging about their agreement with the Coalation of Immokalee workers when it took him years to even listen to them and come to an agreement? The Florida Tomato Commitee ignored them for years and were reluctant to sign an agreement with the workers. But hopefully some real changes will come of it- like those mentioned in the Estabrook interview.

    September 8, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  13. Ken Bradshaw

    I believe that tomatos grow in Florida because that is where their parents lived.

    September 8, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • AleeD, Born & Raised in Florida

      Yup! There are also snowbird tomatoes and transplanted varieties. :)
      What I don't understand is, if it's tourist season, why can't we shoot them?

      September 8, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  14. JD

    Good interview. I read the original interview with Barry Estabrook and I'm glad that CNN is showing both sides of the story. Good job guys.

    September 8, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  15. Multi-Tasking @ Work

    someone make me a Tomato Sandwich please...whole grain bread, mayo, black pepper, basil & and thinly sliced red onion. then smash it flat...yummy

    September 8, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Byrd

      Don't forget the RoundUp sauce. Kills you quicker.

      September 8, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  16. romw2894

    I, for one, would like to hear more about the tomato industry in Florida. Its farming, picking, ripening, and labor practices. Consumers need to know more about this subject. Industry spokespeople are not the right people to ask.

    September 8, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Chris

      Nor is it wise to listen solely to environmentalists and activists whose intentions are to negatively impact a particular group or industry. Mr. Estabrook is an activist who tells one distorted side of any story he writes. Large scale farming is not pretty, but it keeps us fed and is done within standards set by the FDA and EPA unlike Mexican imports. Farmers would prefer not to use pesticides, but in large scale farming it is a neccesity in Florida. Unfortunately there are no standards requiring Mr. Estabrook to be held accountable for distortion of the truth. Thank you , CNN, for allowing the other side of this issue to be told.

      September 8, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  17. T3chsupport

    "providing American jobs for Americans in America."

    Seems to be a vague and defensive statement.
    Happen to know how many of your employees speak English as a second language?

    September 8, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • tffl

      FWIW, many in Florida, especially in south Florida where most of the tomato farming takes place, speak English as a second language, even if they are citizens. Not to say that most (or even many) of the farm workers are, but assuming they are here legally, it isn't clear to me how their native language is relevant.

      September 8, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • It went right over tffl's head

      Nice try though.

      September 8, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
      • tffl

        No it didn't. There isn't a law that to legally live in America (even to "be an American", whatever you think that means) you must speak English, let alone as your native language, despite the Right's desire that this be the case. There are many citizens who spoke other languages natively – perhaps even some of your ancestors...

        September 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
      • Big John

        I'm with tffl on this, too. I lived in South Florida for 7 years before I had to return to the redneck Midwest where I am from. We had all kinds of legal immigrants working on our house. One in particular was a Bolivian immigrant who had just gotten his U.S. citizenship. One of the finest workmen I have ever employed. Did beautiful work, but you had to really take your time trying to explain things to him because English was his second language. My own great-grandfather was an American citizen and only spoke German. Speaking English is NOT a prerequisite of citizenship.

        September 8, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  18. T.R.

    With our transportation system being what it is (FedEx, railroads, trucking), you would think that producers of tomatoes (and many other fruits and vegetables) could get a product to market within a couple of days after picking instead of one that is picked while very much "green" and left to ripen in some warehouse or store shelf that invariably tastes like crap! It amazes me that the tomatoes(especially) at the grocery store are nothing but juicy cardboard in the middle of summer! What's up with that????

    P.S. "American jobs" my a$$!!! How do you say "Don't pick that yet. Let it ripen a little more." in Spanish????? :-)

    September 8, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • tffl

      The problem is that ripe tomatoes are pretty delicate – if they get bounced around (in a truck or whatever) they bruise and then are generally unsalable – that is, most here who is demanding perfect ripe tomatoes even when they are shipped thousands of miles would refuse to buy them if they were shipped when fully ripe. There are some (at least here in Florida) that come pretty close, but they are specially packed (individually encased in padding) and cost 2 to 3 times what bulk tomatoes do. On those fairly rare occasions when I buy fresh tomatoes, they are what I normally get (if they are available, which isn't always), but they are likely too expensive for most frequent tomato buyers to get all the time. So you have a choice – during those times of the year when you cannot find local tomatoes, you either buy expensive but riper tomatoes (if you can find them), buy cheaper but not so tasty tomatoes, or do without...

      September 8, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Worldwalker

      Imported tomatoes from Israel are not all that uncommon. If tomatoes can be shipped from half a world away (and, by the way, taste a hundred times better than the plastic "tomatoes" Mr. Brown is pushing) I'm pretty sure they can be shipped from other places in the US besides Florida.

      September 10, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  19. Karacara

    Let me start off by saying that I have worked on a tomato and pepper farm, and I am an American born caucasian female with a bachelors degree.
    I must concur with all of Reggie Brown's statements, and agree that buying Florida tomatoes supports an American product grown in America and supports our local economy, HOWEVER, I must agree with RichardHead that indeed 99% of the employees in the industry are hispanic, usually Mexican, and most were not born in this country, many are not citizens, many of those are illegal, and a majority do not speak, read, or write english. Some do not even read or write their own language.
    Someone in this industry needs to take the initiative to start hiring workers that were born in this country and speak English as a first language- there are many out there looking for a job who would gladly toil in the sun even for minimum wage. I was one of them, with a college degree even.

    September 8, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Chris R

      Personally, I think you are mistaken. I do not think there are enough Americans willing to work under those conditions for those wages. If there were why aren't Americans taking those positions right now? Are the illegals forcing them out somehow? Or is it that the wages and conditions are too bad for most Americans to even consider it? Sure, you could get more citizens working those fields as long as you raise the wages and working conditions – and are willing to pay more at the market for that,

      September 8, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
      • Karacara

        A.Backwards racism. Farmers (and folks like yourself) just assume there are no white, english speaking American born folks willing to take those positions or they think no white english-speaker could possibly be good at it, so they don't hire them.
        B. The farmers don't hire like typical employers- you wont ever see listings for "farmworker" in the newspaper, online, etc, because they just go to immigrant communitiees and scoop up some workers, then hire the friends and family of those workers when they need more employees. True story, all my coworkers were related and lived next to eachother. They didn't apply for a job, they were snatched up because of where they lived and the color of their skin.
        C. They are actually paid pretty well, if they are legal, better than I am getting paid now as a state worker with a Bachelors degree, as a "scientist". I would gladly take my higher paying field worker job back, but had to relocate and didn't have any connections to Mexican farmworkers in this area, so no more farm job for the english speaking white girl.
        D. My jobs before the farm job were far worse conditions, far lower pay, and all of my coworkers were legal, white, Americans. Most were young women, intelligent, fit. But again, unless you live in a migrant community and are Mexican, you cannot get these jobs because they aren't posted anywhere and farmers don't even want to give white folk a try. I got lucky in finding a connection.
        E. Stop pretending you know all about farm labor until you've actually worked it. Is it hard? Sure, but working in kennels with dangerous dogs, lifting 50+ pounds and scooping dog crap for minimum wage with timed bathroom breaks was far worse, and there are plenty of white folk doing that.

        September 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  20. Worldwalker

    I would guess that this was an email "interview" - he answered (or didn't answer, in this case) a list of questions sent to him. And he made sure to get the loaded words, the buzzwords, in every chance he could. "Americans" ... "jobs" ... "families" ... so nobody would look at what he actually SAID.

    And the farmer in the other article who said nobody pays for taste ... there's a farmer's market here on Saturday, and they'll have tomatoes. Fresh, delicious tomatoes that don't taste like giant packing peanuts. When real tomatoes aren't available locally (either on my plants or commercially) I get by with the canned kind, because they STILL taste better than those vaguely pinkish-orange ... things ....

    September 8, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Nope – we indeed spoke. Not e-mail.

      September 8, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • tffl

      Yes – you can get better tasting tomatoes by growing them yourself or (sometimes!) by buying at a farmer's market. But both of those have a fairly short season, and even during season, many people don't have the resources (like a place) to grow their own or have access to a farmer's market. Canned tomatoes are good for most cooking uses (in fact, often better than even "good" fresh tomatoes for cooking) but they aren't really useful for uses where you need fresh (salads, uncooked soups, etc.) so then your choices are to use what you can get (which are often these less-than-great tomatoes) or do without.

      September 8, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  21. alimonyjones

    He didn't respond in any meaningful as to the number of (carcinogenic) "chemical compounds his firm uses on their fields. For once I second RicharHead...

    September 8, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  22. RichardHead from the DRY Hacienda@Kat

    Nice article and I think our next President would be smart to hire Mr. Reggie Brown as his Chief Spin Doctor. "American jobs for Americans in America" pretty much says it all as I drive past ALL of these Americans out picking the tomato's,strawberries and orange's produced in the Great State of Florida. They All can read,write and speak English fluently while filling their baskets full of all of this fine produce.
    Yes Sir, It's great to be American and have this fine American job.

    September 8, 2011 at 9:04 am |
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