Grain and corn harvesters date back to the 1800s. However, grain and corn are relatively easy to harvest. Grain harvesting involves little more than cutting tall grass whereas ears of corn are large, strong, and similarly shaped.
Interestingly, tomatoes were not common food until the 1800s. Early colonialists brought the tomato plant to Europe in the 1500s as a decorative plant. People thought the plant and fruit were poison. Additionally, early tomatoes were small, yellow, and even for those brave (or foolish, or hungry) enough to try them, they didn’t taste good.
Over the next centuries, people realized it was relatively easy to breed different types of tomatoes. Similar to many other “natural” fruits, vegetables, and animals the tomato is more a creature of people than nature.
While tomatoes finally caught on in popularity around the US and Europe they were still a hassle to harvest. Unlike wheat and corn, harvesting tomatoes is significantly more difficult. Furthermore, they are irregularly shaped and fragile. However, thanks to better breeds, they’d become tasty and profitable. Most tomatoes are crushed tomatoes and used to make ketchup and canned tomato sauces.
Automatic Tomato Picker
Food scientists Jack Hanna and engineer Colby Lorenzen, from the University of California at Davis, started work on an automatic tomato picking machine in 1949. Eventually, more than a decade later, they developed a device. Their picker worked but it was enormous, expensive, and (most importantly) destroyed an inordinate amount of the fruit.
In response, Hanna set out to breed a “square” tomato, a plant with a tough skin and uniform shape. Tomato skin is discarded at canning factories. Therefore, the tough skin made the machines more viable while not hurting the ultimate product.
Eventually, in 1961, Hanna developed tomato VF-145. Its tough skin, hard fruit, and uniform shape made it the perfect match for his $200,000 ($1.7 million adjusted to 2019) tomato picking machine. In 1963 about 60 machines harvested one percent of California’s tomato crop. The price of tomatoes rapidly declined, forcing farmers to purchase a picker or exit the business. By 1968, 1,450 machines picked about 95 percent of tomatoes.
Farms & Crop Yields Grow
To maximize returns, the large machines demanded ever-larger crops and tomato acreage quickly grew. California produced 1.3 million tons of tomatoes in 1954. By 1975, the state produced 7 million tons. By 1977, industrial tomatoes in California was a $500 million crop ($2.1 billion adjusted to 2019).
While prices fell not everybody was happy about the new technology. Small growers could not compete and quit the business. Tomato pickers – largely migrant workers – held strikes and sued. Despite the strikes and lawsuits, tomato harvesters are more efficient than ever and migrant agricultural workers can still find work.