In Search of the Promised Tomatoland, Part 2: The Alternatives

August 26, 2011

Editor’s note: The following is the second in a two-part series based on a panel called In Search of a Promised Tomatoland, hosted by CUESA on August 15, 2011. See the first part here.

sites/default/files/tomatoes_multi_heirloom_0.jpgWhich tomato is more sustainable: the one grown on a local farm by immigrant farm workers earning a fair wage, or the one offered by an American company working with farming families in Mexico and helping them build self-sufficiency? This question was central to the discussion at last week’s tomato-centric panel discussion.

Both Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm and Larry Jacobs of Del Cabo spoke about their efforts to produce an ethical, just alternative to the tomatoes picked by an underpaid, overworked, and often demoralized class of people in Immokalee, Florida. [See Part One for more.] Both men described the choices they’ve made to place the well-being of the people they work with (in Del Cabo’s case, its micro-farmers) at the center of their businesses.

sites/default/files/nigel_walker2.jpgWalker (pictured at right) employees around 15 to 18 people. His foreman, Jose, has been with Eatwell since the late 90s, and Walker makes a point to provide work for the whole crew all year-round (a rare opportunity for most farm workers). “At one point,” he recalls, “I was considering just doing heirloom tomatoes. But the real problem came when I realized I’d need all these people in the summer but had no work for them in the winter,” he told the crowd.

Walker thinks about his workers’ lives beyond the farm. For example, he said he has recently been striving to address the need for more English skills among his crew. “A worker (who speaks limited English) was having a hard time with her landlord; when we tried to intervene, he told us to piss off. One of the ladies in the office has taught English as a second language, so we started offering an hour of paid English lessons for the whole crew once a week.” This level of investmentsites/default/files/eatwell_tomato_farmers_0.jpg has more than paid off; Walker said his workers are more confident and they’re much more invested in the outcome of the farm.

Larry Jacobs, on the other hand, told the story of Del Cabo, a cooperative that works with over 400 small farming families up and down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico and distributes organic tomatoes and herbs around the U.S. Jacobs (pictured below, on the right, with a Del Cabo farmer) talked about traveling with his wife Sandra throughout Latin America in the 1970s and starting Del Cabo in an effort to address the poverty they witnessed there. The two had experience running a small farm in Pescadero, CA, but they had found the farm labor question to be challenging.

“It struck me that hiring people who weren’t here legally was a problem. And one way to address that was to go where they weren’t illegal.”

The Del Cabo farm families grow herbs and tomatoes on around five acres each and earn about $30,000 a year, on average. It may not seem like much here in the States, but Jacobs says that farm incomes in Baja were closer to $3,000 a year when they first arrived in the area. This difference, he says, has allowed many families to invest in education for their children, and – just as importantly – so those children won’t need to travel to the US in search of work and schooling. And, sites/default/files/narcisolasanimas.jpgJacobs told the audience, Del Cabo is able to offer their farmers both health benefits and a retirement program – two things Walker can’t afford. “It required us to get to a certain size,” he said, “so economies of scale are important.”

The Del Cabo model is a natural outgrowth of global economics, but in the eyes of farmers like Walker, it also has a clear downside.

“I totally support what they’re doing, but I think people should buy locally. As it is now, I have to compete with these small farmers in Baja, so the price I can get for my cherry tomatoes is determined by what Del Cabo can charge.” Walker pays his workers around ten dollars an hour; he said, “That’s what they’d earn in a whole day in Mexico.”

And for as long as fuel prices stay low, cheap air freight will help keep the price of Del Cabo tomatoes low as well. “Their tomatoes come into this country relatively cheaply,” said Walker, “because they hitch a ride on the airplanes that have space. My freight charges were only $.50 a pound when I was air shipping tomatoes to New York.”

For these reasons and more, Del Cabo sells to grocery stores like Trader Joe’s, while farms like Eatwell rely heavily on direct marketing to customers who really value local food. In additions to farmers markets, Walker has a very developed CSA program, with drop-off locations in 15 cities around the Bay Area.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the Eatwell and Del Cabo models, however, is revealed in the winter – when Eatwell’s tomatoes are nowhere to be found. Walker thinks this lack of availability is worth it, when you consider that eating seasonally is key to keeping local agriculture alive.

As Nigel put it on the night of the panel: “If you’re going to buy Florida tomatoes in winter, you should know what goes into making that possible. Or you can buy them from Del Cabo and support these organic farmers. And you can’t get them from me at all, but you can come to our annual tomato sauce party, and you’ll have a nice jar of them you can open in the winter instead.”

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