Dance of the Machines

Dear (Contact First Name),

On the largest farms in California and the rest of the U.S., harvest is completely mechanized.  For commodity crops like corn and soybeans as well as canning tomatoes, almonds and walnuts, a handful of workers operating specialized machinery can harvest many hundreds of acres each.  Even most winegrapes are now harvested mechanically.
Walnut harvest is happening all around us as I write this:  one machine shakes the nuts onto the ground, another sweeps them into rows, a third vacuums them up off the ground, and a fourth carries the nuts to trucks waiting outside the orchard.

Whatever the crop, the harvesting equipment is an enormous investment — around $300,000 for walnuts, for example.  It pays for itself through labor savings, of course.  But only on a large scale.  The cost of the equipment is a primary reason that there are ever fewer farms growing ever larger acreages of most commodities.

Harvesting fresh delicate and perishable vegetables with machines is even more complicated than harvesting commodities.  The harvesters used by the large carrot producers, for example, cost half a million dollars.  Same goes for the lettuce harvesters that are still in development.  Only a handful of growers farm enough acreage to justify this investment.

Small scale mechanical harvesting aids are few and far between.  And the ones that do exist are either old, or made in Europe (and thus hard to come by), where governments are more supportive of small scale farming.  At Terra Firma, we have two harvesters:  one to harvest green beans, and the other to dig potatoes and sweet potatoes. The vast majority of our crops are harvested by hand — as they are on most fresh fruit and vegetable farms, even the largest ones.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t highly mechanized:  we are.  In fact, with the exception of harvesting, most tasks on our farm are done with machines.  Preparing the soil, fertilizing, planting, etc.  Tractor cultivation takes care of the majority of weeds, although we almost always send humans through the field afterwards to catch what the machines miss.

Here’s a video of us planting broccoli using a machine that helps people do their jobs more quickly.

VID 20131005 072210 629
Transplanting Broccoli

This is a transplanter where people sitting upright pull plants from trays and drop them into a machine that sets them into the ground.  It’s not perfect — we still need to have other people walking behind to check the plants.  But it allows us to plant an acre of broccoli or onions quickly and easily — in about an hour — so we can get back to the work that we spend most of our time on:  Harvesting by hand.




The Heartbreak of Rain on May Fruit

The storms that swept through California during the last week produced record amounts of rainfall as well as record cool temperatures for late May. They also ruined millions of dollars worth of cherries and strawberries. Cherries and Strawberries have a … Continue reading

The Sad Tale of the Confused Onions

Most vegetables go through a series of life stages including vegetative growth, flowering, fruiting and senescence (aka, “death”). Our goal as humans — farmers, gardeners, and eaters — is generally to succeed in growing them until they produce the part … Continue reading

Tariffs and Tomatoes

If you’re paying attention to trade policy at all, you’ve probably heard that the Trump Administration is threatening to raise tariffs on Friday on a large part of the exports that China sends us, again. This news caused the stock … Continue reading