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Barry Estabrook’s “Tomatoland” will change your view of Tomatoes – and Labor

Screen Shot 2011-09-22 at 9.05.43 PM.pngI must admit, like salmon in a restaurant or tomatoes in the salad on the latest plane flight, I am a fan of neither.  However, the tomatoes from my garden (with a cucumber) or a salmon caught with a fly of the beach, does change the way you feel about food.  And, for a guy who spends most of his time thinking too much about how food can kill you, my tomatoes, cucumber and occasional salmon, are a nice change of pace.

But, it was not the “foodie” part of Estabrook’s book that made me think – hard.  It was the labor issues surrounding the food that we eat most often that most of us never think much about.  Of course, I use the word “labor” from his book loosely.  It is far more akin to slavery than anything any of us can imagine. 

Reading the book will (I hope) change your view of tomatoes, and of the labor that puts them into you grocery cart.  You need to read “Tomatoland.”

I understand a very small slice of migrant farm labor.  See, between my junior and senior year in high school a buddy convinced me that we could make easy money “working the harvests” from Eastern Oregon to the Okanogan in Canada.  My parents said I could not go.  So, one Saturday when they where away, I stole $20 out of my dad’s sock drawer, packed a duffel and hitch-hiked some 300 miles to the Eastern Washington town of Bridgeport.  There began my three-month adventure into my version of “Grapes of Wrath” or its more modern version – “Tomatoland.”

tomatoland-200x300.jpgPulling suckers until your hands bled, or thinning green apples until you saw them in your dreams, were a respite from moving sprinkler lines with the constant concern that you might pick up a rattlesnake along with the pipe.  Standing on the top of a three-legged ladder, grasping for the last of the cherries and a month later peaches, has created a life-long aversion to fruits that I am sure are perfectly edible.

Housing, well if you can call it that – I mostly slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of whatever orchard house I worked out of – was ever changing.  For a short time I lived in a house on the edge of town with a revolving group of workers – white, black, Hispanic, men, women and families – most who thought the accommodations fine.  I thought standing on the beams of the rotten floor in the bathroom at best a balancing act.

The one thing that I was always acutely aware of in my three-month adventure (I brought home $80 and paid my dad back) as a migrant farm worker was that I could always hitchhike home any time I wanted.  It was not so for my co-workers nor the workers portrayed in “Tomatoland.”

Knowing where your food comes from and who brings it to you is a good thing.

  • Steve

    I heartily agree — Tomatoland is an important book and Barry Estabrook does a great writing job presenting it.
    Also it’s interesting to hear about Bill’s hands-on experience — there’s a food system perspective most Americans know nothing about.
    And while Estabrook’s book shows we are all eating on the backs of highly oppressed workers, the effects on our food system spread out from there. It’s the basis for our much touted US cheap food policy, for one. And for small scale farmers this ongoing worker oppression has immediate implications for the returns on their own labor as owner/operators — as they have to compete against virtual slave labor (see Estabrook on this too).