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Flash in the Pan

Tomato wars


If you eat tomatoes in America between the months of December and May, chances are slaves picked some of the tomatoes.

Ninety percent of the nation’s winter tomatoes are grown in Immokalee, Fla. Workers are mostly migrant Latinos like Mariano Lucas Domingo, an illegal Guatemalan. According to an article in this month’s Gourmet magazine, Domingo lived in the back of a locked truck for two and a half years, and was often shackled and beaten by his crew boss, who also kept his salary.

Since 1997, Florida Law Enforcement has freed more than 1,000 slave laborers, and that only counts the cases that resulted in convictions against negligent crew bosses. Meanwhile, thousands more workers are regularly beaten, misled and cheated in Immokalee. In response to workers organizing for better conditions, one farm boss was reported as saying, “The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm.”

The simple, humanistic thing to conclude here is that conditions should change for the workers, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is working to do that (more of that in a moment). But there is a deeper question also worth asking: “Do we need tomatoes in the winter?”

I think the answer is no. Unfortunately, that would mean the CIW would have nobody to advocate for, because thousands of farm jobs would evaporate.

But consider this: A typical Immokalee day begins at 5 a.m. when workers assemble in a parking lot full of old school busses. A different crew boss manages each bus, and he chooses the youngest and most fit for the day’s work.

On a good day, workers earn about $50 for picking, literally, a ton of tomatoes. Much of their paycheck is then siphoned off to pay for the high rents charged for sub-par housing. Benefits generally included as part of a rental agreement cost extra—like $5 for a shower from a cold hose.

The CIW originated in 1993, when a few workers began meeting in a church. Since then, among other accomplishments, CIW was awarded the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award by Anti-Slavery International, and has been successful, via a series of restaurant boycotts, in a campaign to persuade some of the larger purchasers of Immokalee tomatoes to pay for a penny per pound raise to the pickers. A penny may not sound like much, but it’s the difference between $50 and $70 for that ton of tomatoes. To date, Yum! restaurants, which include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Arby’s and KFC, have agreed to the raise, as has McDonald’s. Burger King has so far refused.

Steven Grover, Burger King’s vice president of global food safety, quality assurance and regulatory compliance, cites legal complexities of implementing the raise to explain why Burger King hasn’t signed on.

“We just can’t find a legal way to do it,” he told QSR, a fast food industry trade journal.

Despite Grover’s claims that he wants to play ball with CIW, according to QSR he recently instructed his buyers to find alternate tomato suppliers, rather than deal with CIW. And last year, as reported elsewhere, Grover was caught red-handed using his daughter’s online identity (“surfxaholix36”) to defame the CIW with comments like: “The CIW is an attack organization lining the leaders pockets…They make up issues and collect money from dupes that believe their story…The people protesting don’t have a clue regarding the facts. A bunch of fools!”

So, dear readers, I guess it’s time to boycott Burger King. Oh wait, most of you probably don’t go to Burger King anyway. And therein lies the issue: fighting for better worker conditions in an industry that shouldn’t exist.

The chemical-intensive and monocropping techniques used to grow those tomatoes in Immokalee are bad for the planet, as is all of the petroleum burned in the tomatoes’ shipment. So while in the short term I’m in favor of workers getting paid and treated fairly, in the long term I think it would be best for the industry as a whole to fail.

Josh Slotnick, director of the PEAS Farm and instructor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Montana, agrees.

“I’m psyched to see the workers organize,” he says. “But it’s like sticking a skinny Band-Aid on a nasty infection. Ideally, conditions in their home countries wouldn’t be so bad that these workers felt the need to leave home and take these jobs that are so horrible nobody here wants to do them. These people should be growing their own tomatoes for their own communities back home, and we should be getting our tomatoes, in season, from here in Montana—not Florida.”

Obviously, we can’t grow tomatoes in winter in Montana. But is this really a problem?  Those Immokalee tomatoes, which are picked green and ripened later, don’t taste like tomatoes anyway. They only look like tomatoes.

But the Montana tomatoes I have frozen and canned from last summer still taste like real tomatoes, while the winter salads I’ve been making with cabbage and frozen kale aren’t in the least bit lacking without them. And while my burger might not be quite the same without a slice of fresh tomato, the homemade ketchup I pour on top more than compensates.

Ask Ari: Lightning round

This week we’re tackling lots of short questions.

Q: I recently moved to Missoula and would like to get a community supported agriculture (CSA) share this summer. Unfortunately all the CSAs I’ve contacted are full. Any ideas?
—Desperately Seeking CSA!

A: That’s a very good question. I believe Homestead Organics, in Hamilton, still has space. You can contact them through

Also, the Missoula Food Co-op sells  boxes filled with foods grown on area farms. There is no season-long commitment with these food boxes, which can be purchased on a week-by-week basis.

If anyone else knows any CSA’s with open memberships closer to town, let me know.

Q: You ran a recipe a while back for a simple salmon marinade that used soy sauce and amino acids, but I don’t recall the few other simple ingredients. If I’m barking up the right tree, could you please reply with the recipe?
—Fully Marinated

A: That marinade was equal parts soy sauce and liquid amino, plus sugar and fresh dill. While I generally use it when making salmon jerky, it works great in the broiler or on the grill.

Q: My name is Alex Cheng. I have a business transaction that would benefit us. This project has to do with funds transaction. Please write to my private e-mail to enable me to provide you with details on what I propose.
—Mr. Alex Cheng

A: Thanks for the letter, MAC, but this is a food column. Feel free to write back if you have a food-related question.

Q: My garlic is sprouting. Can I plant it?
—Clove Quest

A: You can plant it, CQ, but it won’t grow into mature garlic with a bulb. For that to happen you needed to plant it last fall.

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