#21 Tomato Production – The California Story
The interest that California growers had in mechanized agriculture is unique in the world’s history. There are a lot of firsts in California, especially entering the 20th century. Early on people laughed when engineers at UC Davis talked about harvesting tomatoes with a machine. But the big cost in tomato production was picking them.
One major challenge was the tomato plant itself. Tomatoes did not ripen uniformly, so it was necessary to send crews into the field for multiple hand pickings. One of the first steps for success was to develop a different tomato plant that ripened over a short period of time. It took eleven years, for plant geneticist Jack Hanna to produce a tomato that could hold up to mechanical harvestings. Besides the development of new equipment and new varieties, higher planting densities and changes in irrigation and fertilization were necessary to get uniform maturity and good economic results.
Advances in agriculture were not the result of adopting one tool or technique. Progress was, and continues to be, the adoption of “packaged technology.” Successful mechanization of tomato picking depended upon effective machines, specially bred tomatoes, careful irrigation, fertilization and particular planting techniques. Mechanical advancements are estimated to have saved fifty-two man-hours of labor per acre. At the time, many observers felt that this mechanization saved the USA’s tomato industry from outsourcing to other countries.