Sunday, October 16, 2011


When I was growing up, one of my favorite edible treats in the summer was a tomato grown from my Grandpa’s garden. His tomatoes were always huge, juicy, and bursting with flavor. There were many times when I would just eat a couple of them for lunch. I think it’s because of my Grandpa’s tomatoes that I came to love the fruit. However, despite the mass production of this tasty little delicacy not all tomatoes are alike. From my fondness for the fruit, I read Barry Estabrook’s book, TOMATOLAND.

Before I began reading, I had assumed that TOMATOLAND was going to be the definitive history of tomatoes interlaced with an expose of the evil practices of the large corporations responsible for growing many of the tomatoes consumed in America. I was only slightly correct in my assumption because though there are a few historical tomato anecdotes, the book is mostly an expose of the how large agribusinesses are destroying this flavorful fruit.

The majority of the book examines how tomatoes are grown by large agribusinesses and how those businesses mistreat the mostly migrant workers that work in the tomato fields. The factual piece of information that I found most fascinating while reading TOMATOLAND is that most of the tomatoes in the United States are grown in Florida. Having been raised in the Midwest, I was shocked by that fact. Though the climate in Florida is prime for tomato growth, the soil is terrible for the plants. I would have thought that maybe Texas or California were the largest tomato growing states, but I was wrong. Since most tomatoes are grown in Florida, the companies that grow them have to go to extreme measures to keep growing the crops year round. So, besides using illegal migrant workers, these companies further their unethical practices by exposing those workers to dangerous, carcinogenic, and sometimes lethal working conditions. TOMATOLAND examines these practices.

However, the book isn’t completely negative. It also examines an alternative look at tomato-growing by telling the stories of some tomato growers besides the big agribusinesses that practice ethical business operations and humane working conditions.

There are a lot of statistics in TOMATOLAND and there are points where the first half of the book drowns in the names of chemicals and the statistics of particular court cases. The book is saved in the personal stories it tells, particularly in the last half. It was these stories (and the occasional tomato fact) that kept me reading until the end.

TOMATOLAND is not the definite book about tomatoes. It is, however, an informative, albeit often dry, examination of the large agribusiness practices that are destroying tomatoes and eradicating tomato taste. It also contains some wonderful stories about people around the country who are trying, sometimes inadvertently, to bring about a better tomato growing business. The book has appeal to those who like tomatoes and those who are interested in how large agribusinesses operate.

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