Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ending Slave Labor Was the Start of a Good Thing

Tomato harvesting machines like this have been around for several decades.  This particular machine has a harvesting capacity of 40 to 80 tons per hectar depending on machine size and field production.

Tomato picking machines are not for back yard plots, but for large commercial canning, ketchup, and sauce farms located in places like the central valley of California, where over twenty-eight billion pounds of tomatoes will be harvested this year (14.23 million tons).

What drove the mechanization of the American tomato harvest?

The short story is that when America ended the importation of unfree foreign "Bracero" labor to compete with American workers paid near-slave wages, farmers had to decided whether they were going to raise wages and improve working conditions, or mechanize field planting and harvest. The University of California at Davis plant science department explains.

When plant breeder Jack Hanna and engineer Coby Lorenzen, two scientists at the University of California, Davis, teamed up in the mid-1950s to invent a machine that could mechanically harvest tomatoes, no one thought they could do it. The laughingstock of the Davis Plant Science department for more than a decade, the two made countless prototypes that failed — tomatoes split and turned to juice in the field, and the machine broke down after hitting clods of dirt.

Plus, when they started, it was cheap and efficient to pay farm laborers, many of whom were brought into the country from Mexico through the Bracero program. These guest workers harvested tomatoes by hand in much the same way that workers in places pick fresh tomatoes today: very gently.

By 1963, rumors started to circulate that the Bracero program was coming to an end and the tomato industry broke into a cold sweat over the prospect of losing 80 percent of the cheap labor force they used for tomato picking. In a dramatic tale of perseverance and ingenuity, Hanna and Lorenzen achieved the break-through they’d been waiting for. The industry quickly pinned their hopes on the rickety machine and the new, tough, easily de-stemmed tomato hybrid affectionately named “vf-145” that scientists were developing alongside it, in hopes that it would withstand a mechanical harvester.

With help from a local machinist named Ernest Blackwelder, and an eager network of financiers and UC Cooperative Extension agents, the California processing tomato industry mechanized almost overnight. Within five years, 99.9 percent of the industry was using the mechanical harvesters, and most farmers were planting the comparatively tasteless hybrid tomatoes built to withstand them. And processing facilities retooled their systems to receive the mechanically harvested fruit, reversing the practice of paying premiums for hand-harvested tomatoes.

Twenty years later, nearly all of the tomatoes grown in the U.S. for tomato sauce, paste, ketchup, juice, and other processed foods are harvested by Hanna and Lorenzen’s once-scorned machine.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

It's amazing that canned tomatoes have as much flavor as they do; I'd say the average canned tomato has more taste than supermarket 'fresh'. A fruit has to be pretty firm to take that sort of treatment. Looks like they've bred for simultaneous ripening. I guess the taste killer for fresh tomatoes is shipping time and shelf life. Hand picking doesn't help if you pick green.
Bottom line...for fresh produce, the problems of breeding for mechanical harvesting are minor compared to those of long distance shipping and distribution.