The award-winning journalist Barry Estabrook spans two worlds. The first is the community of farmstead cheesemakers, grocers selling well-raised meat, and vegetable gardeners in Vermont where he lives. (“It’s great. You get spoiled,” says Estabrook.) But beyond that storied landscape is the second world: the industrial food-production system he investigates in notable articles for the magazine Gastronomica, online for the Atlantic, for the newspaper the New York Times, and on his blog, Politics of the Plate.
As a longtime contributing editor at the late Gourmet magazine, Estabrook wrote about antibiotics in farmed salmon, working conditions on banana plantations, and pesticide use on strawberry crops. He has cross-examined the USDA, Big Ag, and Monsanto in fact-finding missions on food labeling, animal feed, GMOs, irradiation, organic seafood and rBST milk, as well as a host of other environmental, political, and food-policy issues.
His book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit takes a hard look at the supermarket tomato. In researching tomato cultivation in one Florida town, Estabrook discovered the high — and human — costs of unsustainable production models combined with uninformed consumer demand. This work, like all of Estabrook’s, is well-told, well-researched, and trenchant, an exemplary story of our times. In April, the International Association of Culinary Professionals singled out Tomatoland for two distinguished awards.
How has food come to mean so much to you as a writer?
I was raised in northern Indiana for part of the time and then eastern Ontario, Canada. I lived in a rural area, always. In high school, I worked for a farmer haying the old way, which meant racing around the field in 98-degree heat and throwing these hay bales around and putting them up in the loft. After university, I spent a season commercial fishing off Nova Scotia. It was backbreaking work, too.
I liked all aspects of food production. I found it fascinating to know how these things were done, but I wasn’t going to be able to commercial-fish or run a dairy farm. I was too lazy. It was a tremendous amount of work.
About that time, during the first back-to-the-land movement in the mid-to late 1970s, I fell into writing for a Canadian publication, a version of Mother Earth News. It was all about farming organically, raising small livestock. We actually had a monthly goat columnist. That was the background to what I’ve carried down through the years. When Gourmet came along, I worked there for nine years as their “where food comes from” writer — that was my beat.
What preceded your tenure at Gourmet?
The Canadian magazine I was working for wanted to start a magazine in the United States. They picked me as the editor mostly because of my ignorance. I had been the editor of two of their magazines, and both of them were start-ups. And while I was interested in food from an environmental and production side, I was not a New York insider or San Francisco foodie. That was Eating Well magazine and what led to the gig at Gourmet.
What influenced you to commit to a book on the subject of tomatoes?
I did the article on the tomato for Gourmet — basically, the slavery chapter. Like all magazines, our story size was just shriveling. So, I went down to Immokalee and spent a couple of weeks researching and came back with a half a file drawer full of legal reports, court reports, and interviews I’d transcribed. I wrote a 2,100-word article.
Then the article got a really good response, a lot of noise. So, I thought, I’ve got all this extra stuff, and maybe there’s a book here. I thought: Here I am covering how food comes to us today, all the evils of industrial agriculture versus small-scale stuff. Why not look at that issue through this emblematic product, and see how tomatoes have fared as an industrial product? It was not only the labor issues but the taste issue — or the lack thereof.
It’s not so much about tomatoes; Broccoliland wouldn’t have had the same euphonic or emblematic effect. Nothing suffers so much in gastronomic quality as the winter tomato from Florida.
What kind of changes have you seen in the commercial tomato-growing industry since the publication of Tomatoland in June 2011?
A sea change. Nine or 10 big companies have signed these Fair Food Agreements. If I was writing this story now, I’d write about how this ragtag group of farm workers in this no-account town went up against these big corporations and won them over. A revolutionary approach to labor relations in agriculture, and it’s working.
In the paperback, there’s an afterward where we went down last April, just after these agreements had come in. I went to a large tomato-packing facility with half a dozen members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). As we were driving there, they were reminiscing about how they had been met with armed off-duty sheriffs and turned back at the gate. The morning I was there last year, we rolled through the gate. We pulled into the central courtyard. Shock of all shocks, there was a crew getting off one of their school buses — a work crew — and they were punching time clocks. This was brand-new — didn’t exist. (In theory, they were supposed to be paid minimum wage for their work, but there was no way to keep track of that.) Then, the newly hired crew filed into this trailer, which was a classroom, and a coalition member spent about 45 minutes telling them what their rights were under this Fair Food Agreement. These were people banned from entering five or six years ago by armed guards.
Every work crew now has a couple of people trained in basic health and safety. This grievance procedure, which never existed before — if you witnessed someone being raped in the fields, if you suspected members were enslaved or members were being beaten by his boss, there was no way you could communicate that. The world ended at your crew boss and there was no way for the message to go any higher. There’s now a clear route, and it’s being used.
Some things seem so small. Shade. Little pop-up tents are now in every tomato field, the kinds you see in farmers markets. These people working in 95-degree heat for 10 or 12 hours — there was no shade.
Even really silly stuff. They fill these giant flower pots called cubetas, about the size of a bushel basket. In the past, they were required to mound up the tomatoes on these baskets like an ice-cream cone. The CIW and the growers got together and weighed a basket filled that full. Turned out there was 35 pounds of tomatoes, and yet the workers were only being paid for 32. They were essentially being ripped off for 10 percent of their work. Sounds trivial, but it’s such a big thing. It used to be the cause of fights and firings. If you talk to the workers, they go on and on about this.
Do you feel like Tomatoland has made a contribution?
If it has changed anything, it’s like a fly landing on the back of an elephant and causing it to lie down. If anything, it is the work that the coalition has been doing since the 1990s.
What remains to be done?
The grocery stores have to come aboard. It’s ridiculous. It’s a disgrace. I’m sorry, but if McDonald’s can do it, there’s not a company in the world that can’t do it. It costs them nothing. The tomato growers are quite pleased. It’s taken care of a lot of problems. They need to step up, and the quicker, the better.
Since the book came out, Trader Joe’s came aboard. Not because of the book, but just because of the relentless pressure from the CIW. It’s Whole Foods’ goofy kid brother with a Hawaiian shirt. You pay a lot to give that friendly gentle Trader Joe’s image. You don’t want some group of workers reminding people that’s not true. You don’t want customers demonstrating in front of your stores.
How does your reporting influence your own cooking and eating?
It simply makes me more mindful. People ask me, Do I ever eat a winter tomato? Yes. Do I ever eat farmed salmon? Rarely, but if there is smoked salmon served at a breakfast and I am hungry . . . Grassfed beef is what I prefer. Well-raised beef next. Would I eat a normal steak? I stay well clear of ground beef. But I don’t like to exercise bans.
Eating mindfully is the first step. That’s what the industry doesn’t want us to do. They want us to think a tomato is a tomato. A pork chop is a pork chop. A piece of beef is a piece of beef. They don’t want us to differentiate because they’re set up to sell commodities.
What food writing, or writing in general, inspires you?
All I read is food stuff. Interestingly, right now you have these bright spots like Tracie McMillan’s book. It’s really happening with various food bloggers. That’s where, to me, the exciting writing is being done: online, on blogs and online news sites. Civil Eats, Grist, Food Safety News — there’s a lot of them.
I’m glad that Mark Bittman has taken this beat on, because he does it well, and he has such an exceptional platform. There are not a lot of places for inspiring food journalism in the normal publishing world.
Your first book was a mystery about trout fishing?
My second was about trout fishing. My first book was about a band of cocaine smugglers. It has tomatoes in it. One of the smugglers has property on the way to Immokalee, Florida, where tomatoes are grown, but there’s space for other products.
My parents owned a place in Naples, Florida, so I’d go down in the wintertime, and my father and I would go fishing in Lake Okeechobee. We often drove through Immokalee. In those days it was Haitians, and they’ve been replaced by Hispanics. It looked like a poor Caribbean backwater. Now it looks like a Honduran backwater.
I did two of those novels for fun. They weren’t serious mysteries. I think that’s what Kirkus Reviews said about one: “feisty, goofy, and unputdownable.” Kind of like me.
So your second novel involved trout fishing. Might your next food book have something to do with the fishing industry?
No. I’m not ready to talk about it yet. Not because I want to keep it secret, but if I talk about it, I won’t do it. Too many people talk about what they’re doing and don’t do it.
Lynne Curry is an Oregon-based food writer and author of the book Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut. She blogs at Rural Eating.
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