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pinion Changing the Culture One Tomato at a Time


It gets a little puzzling watching all of the austerity and budget crunching targeting the poor and those most in need of government assisted programs, while the big ticket items that are devouring our future go unmentioned. The price of food is soaring, making it increasingly harder for many families to provide enough to maintain a healthy life style. Nutritional deficiencies and environmental toxins are the largest contributors to illness and disease. Healthcare alone eats up over 20 percent of our budget, and it is growing at an alarming rate. 

Corporate farms play by a completely separate set of rules then did the family farms many of us grew up with. Corporate farms, like other too big to fail industries, are reporting record profits, even when they claim losses. In fact, where else in the world can a region afford to destroy thousands of acres of crops, and spend millions of dollars doing so, still to come out on top. Sure, they cry all of the way to the bank, but bottom-line is prosperity for them, higher food prices and compromised health for the rest of us.

                          Just sprayed with Roundup

In East Manatee County, off of highway S.R. 62, there are thousands of acres of tomatoes grown every year. By far, the largest majority of those tomatoes are exported out of the county and state, which does generate a lot of revenue, but a large portion of that leaves too. These farms do provide jobs, but most are for seasonal migrant workers that are routinely bussed in from other counties and the majority of them live in abject poverty. There are many reasons to examine just how much the local population really prospers from these mega-farms.

For a few years, I have been monitoring the largest of these farms, which grow 90 percent of all of the tomatoes in the county and there are practices ingrained into the industrial farming culture that forces us all to carry their burdens. It is true, few things are as they appear, especially if you're driving out S.R. 62, among all of those hundreds of million tomatoes. You might think, this is great, and if supply and demand play any role, we'll be head-high with inexpensive tomatoes. Only that's not the case.

It is nearly impossible for a family farm to compete with any of these mega-farms, so the cost of what hits our dinner table relies on how these high-stakes farmers play their game. The tools available to them are immense and they are all designed to deal with the margins of profit for the business. They are not crooks, but the framework of the tomato farming culture is one similar to that of bankers trading futures, cutting losses, insuring production and maintaining price control. It resembles the perils of Wall Street's speculative derivatives, only with tomatoes, the industry creates and pops seasonal bubbles, that often end with destroying and tilling millions of pounds of them into the ground, nearly every year as a norm.

      500 acres full of tomatoes ready to be tilled

Here is clearly a case of more means less, except for the cost to the consumer. I spoke with a couple of field bosses who admit there are many seasons where thousands of bins of tomatoes remained unpicked, The tomatoes are then sprayed with Roundup (herbicide defoliant similar to agent-orange) and later tilled into the ground. This stops anyone from picking them and keeps them from making it to market. One boss told me of a year their farm was forced to abandon 20,000 bins. There are 40, 4'x4' bins to a large truckload, that is 500 truckloads. He told me the price was at the amount that could not afford picking. That means it would devalue all of the other tomatoes that would go to market. That's not really a case of supply and demand, it's hedging the market and the public will cover the cost of the expectations that fell short.

But the facts clearly demonstrate that inaccurate assessments in farm planning result in liabilities that have consequences. And if those consequences can be absorbed, managed by insurance and market value controls, so that the farmer's losses become an instrument in their toolbox for profits, all the better. This is often the case, as the $600 million that corporate farms spend annually lobbying Washington come back to them many times over through government benefit programs and tax loopholes. 

The bottom-line is that nearly every year thousands of acres of tomatoes go unpicked. I have been documenting this for years with photos and interviews from farm workers. Our lust for tomatoes has costs beyond the wallet when supporting these corporate methods of farming. Growing a 2,000 acre field of tomatoes, using these methods, results in an incredible amount of cost to our environment. There is a ton of plastic that is used as ground cover to prevent weeds. At the end of harvest, that plastic is put into piles and burnt. This is not legal, but nearly all corporate farms do it. Recently, because of the complaints by myself and others, you can occasionally see it being gathered, as if being trucked away, yet I still get pictures of farms burning the plastic from all over the region, not just in N.E. Manatee and southern Hillsborough county. 

    One of many burn piles of chemicals and plastic

The burning of this plastic distributes tons of polymers and hydrocarbons into the air we breathe, and with it are the many other chemicals like herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers too. It takes thousands of gallons of imported oil to make and deliver this ground cover, and that's just to the farms in this area. Every year, there is also a tanker truck load of Roundup sprayed on the ground, along with an equal amount of all of the other chemicals. Every-time it rains, what doesn't get put in the air gets washed into the tributaries of the Manatee River and works its way into the groundwater except for what remains on and in our food. Each year, two or three tanker trucks dump highly-concentrated toxic chemicals onto the same 20-mile stretch of road, and that's just pesticides and herbicides, in addition to the many trucks of fertilizer. Is it safe to assume there aren't any consequences for that?

These industrial farms are gold mines for chemical and fertilizer companies like, Monsanto, Dupont and Mosaic, and in doing their biz, they ultimately create a highly-toxic environment for the rest of us. Moderate family farms use half of the chemicals and fertilizers per pound of food as do corporate ones because family farms have more people working per acre than do mega farms. Chemicals, like machines, replace the jobs people once performed. Organic farms employ many more workers per acre than industrial farms. 

To not know the degree of dependency we now place on the use of these chemicals, and to what extent corporate farms pollute our environment, would be to not understand farming in this country today. We do not have to remain victim to this culture forever. I find it incredibly disturbing to see government cutting funds for Medicare, schools, programs for the disabled, food for the needy and shelter for the homeless, and labeling it austerity. Would it be in error to ask these corporate farms to examine their own operations by putting them under the same microscope to see just how much cost is being pushed upon the public?

Every year I see millions of tomatoes get tilled under and we have all seen the black clouds streaming from the farmlands. How critical will we let the state of our water supply and air get before we get a clear picture of just what is going on? If these farms choose to grow such an excessive amount of tomatoes, shouldn't that excess be available for use in our schools, our shelters, food banks and poverty stricken communities, considering the amount of environmental cost placed upon the public? If those running these mega farms can't find a way to discontinue this vulgar waste and toxic residue that is left in their wake, should the public discontinue farm subsidies? Why should anyone expect the government to consider cuts in programs that assist the elderly, or restrict their medication, or take money from a program that supplies aid so a child doesn't go to bed hungry, if these farms refuse to critically review their own operations? 

For 20 years I was a family farmer, and for a while it was on five acres in Plant City. I know how much can be produced on a small farm. We serviced 40 restaurants and had plenty more for ourselves and friends. I didn't mention the names of any of the industrial farms in this piece because the history of this region is historically that of farming in Florida. This piece is not to slam or condemn those farms that in some cases go back 100 years and started out as family farms, but to ask those who now operate mega-farms and have been forced to compete in the corporate world, to examine the end game and proudly take steps to walk us out of this trap we now live in. I do understand change is not easy, but I believe it has to start somewhere. 

I am reminded of the Immakolee farm workers who struggled for years to get one penny a pound more for the tomatoes they picked at harvest, so to work their way out of poverty. For over 30 years, they lived earning the same wages and no paid overtime, sick days, insurance or vacation. The largest of corporate farms held out up until the last couple of years in giving them the penny a pound they requested, and yet some are still holding out. It is hard to listen to their reasons when watching a big John Deer till 100,000 tomatoes an hour into the ground. 

Some local farms have taken the lead for change like, Geraldson Community Farms, Gamble Creek Farm and O'Brien Family Farms, and they are brave and heroic for doing so. There are alternatives methods of farming to deal with pests and truck loads of throw-away plastic ground cover. Growing less, so that less chemicals and tomatoes are tilled into the ground would be of great benefit. Only those who can afford to step back and see the hold today's farming culture has on us all, can change it. Little help will come from those who have made their fortunes from cutting corners and quick-fix corporate measures (excessive chemical and fertilizer use). But for a brighter future, we must find a better way. We are all looking for leadership, and those who can, should take the ball by putting more people back to work, using safer methods that would clean-up the industry so we can again become a leader.    

In the last 70 years, we have gone from seven million to less than a half-million family farms in America, despite the fact that we now have more than twice the population. Our reliance on such practices have left us more vulnerable than ever to famine, starvation and the chaos and security issues that would accompany major disruptions in the food supply. Reforming farming practices on a broad scale is never going to be easy, but like most great challenges, it's also never going to be easier than it is today.


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