Advocacy & Activism, Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Immokalee, America’s Tomato Capital

From, Mark Bittman, 12 May 2011.

Farm workers' housing. Photo by Mark Bittman.

Farm workers' housing. Photo by Mark Bittman.

This morning I left Immokalee, Fla., the source of almost all the winter tomatoes grown in the United States. Its inspiring tomato workers have gone from enduring slavery, beatings, wage theft (and sub-minimum wage pay) and 12-hour days in the blazing heat with no shade, to a victory that, that, while not quite complete, is possibly the most successful labor action in the United States in 20 years, the details of which will have to wait for a column or even a story.

But a little about my quick visit, though obviously less important and compelling: After yet another 6 a.m. flight and a two-hour drive through the Everglades – see my little “panther crossing” picture? See my bumper coated with massacred “love bugs,” so-called because they fly in pairs? – I arrived in the sad little southwestern Florida town and immediately realized I’d been there before, probably 20 years ago. En route from Miami to Fort Myers, my companion and I had decided to detour through a town we’d heard of, one of Haitian and Latino farm workers; no doubt we thought we’d see something exotic and eat a taco or two. We managed the latter, and saw nothing of the real Immokalee.

Some things have changed since then, and some haven’t. You can still buy a taco on any commercial street, and the town is still sad. But after a great deal of struggle, the farm workers’ lot has improved greatly.

I spent a couple of hours talking to workers and organizers at the offices of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, went for a walking tour of workers’ housing (the lattice over the windows is there to reinforce a ban on air conditioning, a ban that has been lifted in at least one instance as an indirect result of the recent agreement), even visited three workers in their “home,” and saw the house where several workers had once been held in slavery (not “like” slavery — slavery, as defined), chatted with one of the more progressive growers, and was driven through the fields, whose winter/spring crop is over, though not entirely picked, as you can see from this photo.

I had just finished reading an advanced copy of Barry Estabrook’s masterful Tomatoland, largely but not exclusively about Immokalee, and the images in my head pretty accurately matched the reality I saw, even though I missed the tomato season and the actual work. But as they say in baseball, wait ‘til next year.

This morning I woke up less early – sweet – went for a run and saw a steamy orange sunrise over alligator-packed wetlands, then drove back to the city. I’m writing this on the plane from Miami to Detroit where, after a dinner with Dan Carmody (who runs the famous and reportedly spectacular Eastern Market, which I’ll hit Saturday morning), I will – like almost everyone else in town – watch the Red Wings try to win Game 7. One needs a little downtime after all.

Source and more photos at:, “Immokalee, America’s Tomato Capital” by Mark Bittman, 12 May 2011.


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