Tomatoland, Take Two: The Update!…

Three time James Beard Award-winning author Barry Estabrook returns to Immokalee to update his groundbreaking chronicle of the CIW’s Fair Food movement…

In a must-read new edition of his seminal book, “Tomatoland,” renowned food author Barry Estabrook takes a look at the unprecedented changes wrought in historically harsh farm labor conditions by the Fair Food Program since the publishing of his first edition in 2011.  From Amazon:

Four entirely new chapters take up where the current edition leaves off to tell the story behind what president Bill Clinton calls “the most astonishing thing politically in the world we’re living in today.” Estabrook reveals how a rag-tag group of migrant tomato pickers in Florida convinced the world’s largest restaurant chains and food retailers to join forces to create a model for labor justice, and then took the necessary steps to make sure that the model really works, not only in Florida, but around the world.  The book includes a new foreword by journalist and author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation).

The updates provide invaluable new insight into the day-to-day functioning of the Fair Food Program, including the story of his ride-along with Fair Food Standard Council auditors from before dawn to late into the night as they interview workers, field supervisors, and company managers at a participating farm; a close-up look at the impact of the Program’s unique enforcement mechanisms as they tackle a forced labor operation; and interviews with workers who have witnessed the revolutionary transformation of working conditions in Fair Food Program fields.  Here’s an extended excerpt from an interview with Udelia Chautla, a worker from Guerrero, Mexico:

As a high school student in the Mexican state of Guerrero, Udelia Chautla dreamed of getting a university education, but her family had no money.  So in 2003, at age seventeen, Chautla came to Immokalee and went straight into the tomato fields.  I had specifically asked to talk to her because she was female and had harvested tomatoes both before and after the Fair Food Code went into effect.  “It was really difficult, heavy work in those years,” she said through an interpreter, when we met one rainy Sunday in early 2017 at the CIW’s offices.  “But I like to work hard.  My goal was to save money and return to Mexico and keep studying.”

Reality squashed those dreams. “It was difficult here just to survive,” she said.

She had two children a few years apart, one of whom had mental difficulties.  Their father became abusive, and she was forced to end the relationship and flee with her kids to a shelter.  For a time, the money she made in the tomato fields was the family’s only source of income.  “All I could afford was rent, child care, and utilities.  Sometimes there was no food.  I just had to keep my head down and continue working.”

Chautla is about five feet tall and has a smile that can brighten her entire face.  On the morning we met, her black hair was tied in a ponytail that extended halfway down her back.  She wore black capri pants, a red T-shirt sporting the smiling visages of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and had on black running shoes with florescent green flashes.  In her early Immokalee years, she experienced most of the indignities of tomato agriculture firsthand.  “I would get up with my baby at four o’clock in the pitch dark to drop her off at the sitter, and I would not be back until seven or even eight at night and then had to cook dinner.  Often, I didn’t get to bed until eleven.  Six days a week.  They would keep us waiting on the bus one, two, three hours with no pay.  If it started raining, we would be driven back.  No pay.”

She and other women on the crew endured almost constant verbal sexual harassment, from both bosses and fellow crew members.  “They said nasty things to us, and you would hear language and jokes that insulted women.”

On occasion, a boss would dump an entire bucket — up to 20 minutes work if the day’s crop was cherry or grape tomatoes — on the ground if he felt that she hadn’t sufficiently “cupped” it.  When a male member of her crew objected to such treatment, claiming that his bucket had been properly filled, the boss came down off the truck and beat him savagely.  Chautla was often sprayed with pesticides.  “You’d see the tractor coming and smell the chemicals and immediately get a headache.”

There was no shade in the fields and often no water for the workers.  “If you stopped to rest, the bosses would scream and yell.  ‘Why are you here if you don’t want to work?  Why did you ever come?”

Today, she said, it’s all different.  The busses wait until 7:00 or even 8:00 in the morning to pick up workers, meaning that she can have breakfast with her kids (there are now three) and walk with them to school.  When the crews get to the farms, they clock in and start picking immediately.  The banning of cupping means they pick more buckets each day, and therefore make more money.  Now, if workers are feeling sick or become too tired to keep picking, they can head to nearby shade wagons. Every crew had members trained in health and safety and can notice when a fellow picker is showing signs of dehydration or heat stroke.  A cooler of water and paper cups are on every truck, enabling thirsty workers to grab a quick drink without losing picking time. When one of her crew bosses became verbally abusive, he got fired.  “He’s gone,” she said.  “Before, if you complained about abuse, you’d lose your job.  The boss would say, ‘Don’t bother coming back tomorrow.’  We can now speak up.  Before we were like slaves.”

Chautla described an incident when a fellow female picker shoved her violently for no reason. “I reported it, and the company actually stepped in.  They sat down with the other woman.  She wasn’t fired, but they talked to her.  The issue was resolved.  Nothing like that happened again.  I felt the company responded and addressed the situation.”

When I asked her how the extra penny-per-pound premium had affected her life, she smiled bashfully.  Iit might not seem like much to others,” she said, looking squarely at me.  “But to us it’s a lot.  You can say to yourself, ‘Now I can get this little something — go out to dinner, maybe, or buy my kids an ice cream cone.’  Knowing that makes you feel better about yourself.  The work is still hard.  It will always be hard work, and I like to work hard, but now there is respect.”

Before implementation of the Fair Food Program, labor justice advocates told me that the job of picking tomatoes ranked at the very bottom of this country’s socio-economic ladder — the worst job a person could hold in the United States.  There wasn’t anyone pushing a broom in a school hallways, slinging fast food at the chain restaurant, vacuuming a hotel room, mowing a golf course, or slaughtering a hog who aspired to someday secure a position in the tomato fields.  Chautla herself had escaped the fields.  She was installing roofing on houses.  “There are even fewer women in that job,” she said, giggling, and then she said words I thought I’d never hear:  “But I love farm work.  I’m planning to go back to it next fall.”

The new material picks up where the first edition ends with the news of the historic agreement between the CIW and Florida growers to implement the Fair Food Program, and puts flesh on the dramatic changes that have taken shape in the intervening six seasons.  Along with Susan Marquis’s detailed account and analysis of the CIW’s quarter century of organizing, “I Am Not a Tractor,” Estabrook’s work is an essential read for those who are looking to understand how profound social change can happen in the most unexpected of places.

Grab your copy of the third edition of Tomatoland here!