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‘Tomatoland’ author visits potato land

Sean Ellis

Capital Press

Many Idaho university students will read "Tomatoland" this year and the author was in the Gem State last week to discuss his claims that modern agriculture destroyed the tomato. Ag industry representatives addressed some of the book's claims during a panel discussion.

BOISE — The author of “Tomatoland” was in potato land last week to discuss his book, which includes the subtitle, “How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.”

The author, Barry Estabrook, discussed his book with University of Idaho, Boise State University and College of Idaho students.

His book is the common read for UI freshmen this year, many BSU sophomores are reading it and CI students are reading “Tomatoland” in two different areas of study.

Estabrook is a magazine and book author from Vermont who has spent his career writing about the alleged problems with industrial agriculture. He said he used the tomato as an example of some of the problems with industrial agriculture.

“It really is the poster child for what happens when you strip away local, seasonal organic fair trade. You end up with a product that is tasteless and that is stripped of nutrition from what it was 50 years ago,” he said while visiting an organic farm in Kuna, Idaho, Oct. 2.

In his book, he also traces severe human rights abuses and environmental problems to the tomato industry in south Florida, and claims a connection between birth defects, cancers and pesticides.

“I took the winter tomato as kind of the poster child of the things that are wrong generally throughout industrial agriculture,” he said.

Several members of Idaho’s agricultural industry joined Estabrook during a panel discussion at the UI campus in Moscow.

Milk Producers of Idaho Executive Director Brent Olmstead spent the weekend before the panel discussion reading the book and said he has no qualms with Estabrook’s condemnation of labor rights violations that occurred in Florida.

He also found commonality with the author over the immigration issue.

Where he and other panelists differed was with Estabrook’s opposition to genetically modified crops and his assertion that small, organic farms can feed the world.

“He wants to go back to the Vermont-style small farms and we’re not going to feed the world that way,” Olmstead said.

Olmstead also challenged Estabrook’s assumption that the issues associated with a segment of Florida’s tomato industry are emblematic of all of U.S. agriculture.

“The problem with his book is that he took a small area where there were a lot of problems and he’s trying to paint all of agriculture with a broad brush, making the assumption that those types of conditions are rampant in agriculture all over the nation,” Olmstead said. “That’s flat-out not true.”

A panel of UI faculty and staff chose “Tomatoland” as the common read for university freshmen this year.

UI College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Interim Dean John Foltz said he’s not excited about the book being chosen as the common read and it wouldn’t have been his choice, but it won’t hurt students to know what someone else is saying, even if they don’t agree with it.

“I won’t say it’s a bad thing, but I won’t say it’s a great thing either,” he said.


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