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.
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.