Florida’s Tomatoland

Barry Estabook’s new Tomatoland book covers a major sector of Florida’s agricultural economy. How did tomato farming in this state rise to such prominence?

Florida just happens to be warm enough for a tomato to survive at a time of year when the easily-accessed population centers in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, with their hordes of tomato-starved consumers, are frigid, their fields frozen solid under carpets of snow. But for tomatoes to survive long enough to take advantage of that huge potential market, Florida growers have to wage total war against the elements. Forget the Hague convention. We’re talking about chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare against the forces of nature.

Estabrook explains the challenges of growing Florida tomatoes in nearly-sterile sand and why that involves intensive fertilization, an arsenal of powerful pesticides, and shipping hard green tomatoes to customers. He also reports on the very difficult lives of tomato farm workers in work centers like Immokalee in south Florida. Estabrook quotes Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant United States Attorney in Ft. Myers, calling these farmworker conditions “ground zero for modern slavery.”

Farms are often more successful than other kinds of business in managing prices and preventing risky price swings. In Florida tomato farming, for example, a committee of tomato growers appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture tightly control the kind of tomatoes that can be grown and shipped out of Florida.

This is a very important and well-written book. I would suggest, however, that Tomatoland could have paid more attention to the the water supply problems of irrigating tomatoes in Florida. Estabrook says that the state is “awash in ground water.” Florida does have a great deal of water but, even so, the water demands of tomato irrigation are enormous and can cause correspondingly large environmental damage. A few examples:

  • Even using the most efficient drip irrigation methods, irrigating tomatoes can use 4600 gallons of water per acre per day.
  • Excessive water use for tomatoes and other vegetables in the Myakka River Watershed in southwest Florida raised the water table and damaged or killed more than two thousand acres of forest.  Farmers vigorously opposed cutting back irrigation. The Southwest Florida Water Management District is spending millions (pdf) of dollars trying to reduce the problem in other ways. (This project was one of the principal interests of the Manasota Basin Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District–before it was precipitously abolished several weeks ago.)
  • Irrigation in the Telogia Creek watershed in north Florida, mostly for tomatoes, impaired the flow of this tributary to the Ochlockonee River.

An excellent book and the best available guide to the practice of industrial agriculture in Florida. His final chapter points to how necessary agricultural reforms could provide much better tomatoes to consumers and much better lives for farm workers.

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