The Big Tomato Issue!

Dear (Contact First Name),

The three-acre tomato field we are harvesting right now is alongside a private gravel road.  Every morning our employees park along that road, grab empty boxes from the piles arrayed there, and start harvesting tomatoes by hand. It’s a fairly tranquil scene.

Terra Firma’s Tomato Field

Most of the tomatoes we grow are tall vines that must be trellised with metal stakes and twine.  People walk down the rows and harvest the fruit, walking the boxes back out to the road. We don’t put much fruit in a box — 10 to 20 lbs. — so as to avoid crushing the tomatoes.  On a normal day, we get about 3000 lbs. of tomatoes out of a field this size.  It takes about 30 people five or six hours to do this.  If the weather is hot, we pick the field every day; if it’s cooler we pick every other day.

Each of our fields has multiple varieties of tomatoes — as many as 20.  In the best case, each of those varieties generally produces ripe fruit for three weeks.  We have four plantings in all, each three weeks apart.  In this way we produce a steady flow of tomatoes from early June until mid-September.

On the other side of the gravel road from our tomato field is 100 acres of non-organic processing tomatoes grown by another farm.  These are varieties bred to produce huge amounts of fruit that are harvested all at once, mechanically. Yesterday morning, at the same time we were hand-harvesting our field, this field was being harvested.

The neighbor’s (canning) tomato field

The tomato harvester lifts the entire plant off the ground, strips the fruit off, and sends it over conveyor belts where dirt and other foreign matter is removed.  The final conveyor shoots the tomatoes into the air where they fall into a very large trailer pulled behind a tractor.  Each trailer holds about 10 tons of tomatoes, and with both tractor and harvester moving 20 miles an hour, it takes less than ten minutes to fill one.   When the trailers are full, the tractors pull them to the edge of the field where they are taken by semi-truck to the cannery.

In a single day, the farmer across the road from us harvested more tomatoes than we will produce in 3 months.  It will take them just 4 days to harvest the entire 100 acres. And this is just one of dozens of fields they will harvest this year.
Processing Tomato harvest

Of course, these are not the same type of tomatoes we are growing.  They are not even the “supermarket tomatoes” so commonly derided for their lack of flavor.  As you can see, they are fully ripe when harvested — any green ones are identified by an optical sorter and spat back out onto the ground.  They are also rock-hard.  You would not want to eat one raw, but they taste pretty good when cooked or used in sauce.  (And btw, organic canned tomatoes are harvested the same way).

There are few scenes that illustrate the diversity and complexity of agriculture better than this one.  Scale, technology and innovation have allowed farmers to become amazingly efficient at growing canning tomatoes.  Meanwhile, the system used to grow fresh market tomatoes has changed little in the last 50 years, and the amount of human labor involved remains tremendous.  An economist might ask, why does anyone still produce fresh market tomatoes when canned ones can be produced so much more efficiently?

The answer lies in the demand, not the supply.  Sales of fresh market tomatoes — and acreage planted worldwide — increase every year.  Demand for canning tomatoes is in decline and has been for over a decade.  People want to eat fresh tomatoes, even when they are out of season locally and cost ten times what canned ones do.  In this declining market for their crop, processing tomato farmers must become ever more efficient just to survive.  In a decade or less, harvest will be fully automated using GPS and self-driving tractors and harvesters.  Only a handful of giant growers will remain.

One day in the future technology will be advanced enough to build armies of soft-fingered robots to replace human harvesters in fresh market tomato fields.  The question is whether or not they will ever be cost effective.  Until then, and as long as people still crave the flavor of fresh ripe tomatoes, humans will be picking the fruit by hand in fields that look much like ours.

Thanks,

Pablito

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