By Elena Day
As a result of a cool, wet spring we prudently put off planting tomatoes until well past the second half of May. Now we’ll spend almost two months looking to the first home-grown, vine-ripened red fruits. It will be worth the wait.
Tomatoes are the fourth most popular vegetable in the US. Florida produces one-third of the fresh tomatoes consumed in the U.S. These are the anemic-looking tomatoes grocery stores provide in winter and that the fast food industry serves up on its entrees. (My husband used to say winter tomatoes “are mined in West Virginia” – more about West Virginia later.) It’s not unusual to find these in more upscale restaurants in our own downtown either, even when local tomatoes are available.
The $5 billion industry is centered in Immokalee, Florida, on land that used to be Everglades. Barry Estabrook recently wrote an expose of agribusiness practices in this part of the world titled Tomatoland.
I visited Immokalee and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers a few years ago. Immokalee is a mere 30 miles or so from numerous exclusive and gated communities in Lee and Collier counties. Streets in Immokalee are unpaved and lined with substandard bungalows and trailers that often house upwards of 12 tomato workers. Rents are high. I was told the average was $350 a week. The tomato pickers are young men, 17- to 25-year-olds, from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti. They are recruited by labor contractors. And they are there to send money home. Estabrooke described the working conditions as “modern day slavery.”
Since 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has worked to stem the worst management abuses. It has safe houses for workers who “escape” remote labor camps, where they are locked in buildings overnight, sometimes even shackled. It has successfully pressured four of the five major fast food chains – McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Subway (to date only Wendy’s is holding out) to sign onto the Fair Food Program aimed at improving wages and working conditions. The fast food chains have agreed to pay an extra penny per pound for Florida tomatoes, money that is remanded to the workers. CIW also provides food staples and phone cards at lower prices than Immokalee merchants. CIW also has a low-watt radio station.
Justice in the workplace is one thing. Ecological malpractice is another. It remains undeniable that tomatoes grown on the nutrient-poor, sandy soils of South Florida are sprayed with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides. The tomatoes are picked green and cold-stored. When an order arrives for tomatoes, it includes the date the tomatoes need to arrive reddened and the batch is gassed with ethylene accordingly.
As for tomatoes in our spaghetti and pizza sauces, salsas and ketchup, agribusiness practices are no better. Processing (or “paste”) tomatoes account for 75 percent of the tomatoes grown. Unlike those for sandwich and salad bar consumption, processing tomatoes have a thicker skin, are vine-ripened and mechanically harvested. The tomatoes are sprayed to ensure that the whole crop ripens at once. Within six hours of harvest they are transformed into paste that can be stored for up to 18 months. California raises 94 percent of the processing tomatoes. Two percent are raised in Indiana, one percent in Michigan and another one percent in Ohio. In eight counties of the San Joaquin Valley of California, whose primary crops are tomatoes, cotton, lettuce, and melons, 32 million pounds of pesticide were applied in 2006. Because of cooler and wetter conditions, California pesticide applications increased to 173 million pounds statewide in 2010 after a four-year decline. Pesticide applications drift onto people and into water resources.
The bottom line is that current agribusiness tomatoes, wherever grown and for whatever purpose, are heavily pesticided (herbicide use is heavy as well) and have 62 percent less calcium, 30 percent less vitamin C, and 19 percent less niacin by weight than those of the 1960s. Today’s tomato also has 14 times more sodium.
Let’s get back to West Virginia. About four years ago a friend and I set out to find the Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O Canal. The C&O Canal is a 180-mile long National Historic Park from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, DC. The Paw Paw tunnel is a 0.6-mile tunnel blasted into a hillside to accommodate the canal and towpath and avoid five horseshoe bends and six miles of the Potomac River. It is an amazing engineering feat that was also accompanied by great loss of life.
We found the tunnel, walked through it in the dark in both directions and then went to lunch in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Berkeley Springs is an old spa town in Morgan County in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. It was first noted as Medicine Springs on a 1747 map drawn up by Peter Jefferson, Tom Jefferson’s surveyor father. We didn’t take the waters. Instead we visited the Tomato Museum.
Apparently, Morgan County boasted a booming tomato growing and canning industry from 1890 to 1940. The first cannery opened in 1892, and in 50 years there were 50 more. There was a yearly Tomato Festival with a queen and her court and visiting dignitaries. Of course, it ended after WWII, with changes in agriculture and immigration to urban areas.
And so I ask why not ? Can we be satisfied with local, tasty, minimally sprayed or unsprayed tomatoes in season? And can we grow some processing/paste tomatoes and revive a local canning industry, albeit small, with an Albemarle County/ Piedmont Virginia label?