The tomato breeding teamat the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) works with urgency these days to develop genetic material to help the state’s growers better compete in a tough marketplace.

Jay Scott, the long-term tomato breeder at the GCREC, got a lot of attention the past couple of years for releasing the Tasti-Lee variety, aimed at putting a more flavorful tomato on store shelves. That effort did not deter him from continuing to look at other important aspects of the industry.

“We look at what’s happening in the industry and determine, from a research standpoint, what we can do about it,” he says. “Unfortunately, we’ve been seeing growers and packinghouses go out of business. We need to increase productivity and output at the same time we reduce inputs.

“Labor costs are one big thing where we can do something to help growers.”

Within two or three years, breeders at the Baum station where Scott’s team works will likely release a jointless, compact growth tomato variety suitable for machine harvest. This would reduce demand for hand-pickers, soothing the minds of growers concerned about labor availability and cost.

“We have a material right now that’s looking pretty good,” Scott says. “We’ve seen enough of some of the new stuff to know it’s pretty interesting. This project could transform major acreage into something growers can live with and stay in business.

“We’re seriously testing some inbreds. Plant height is about two feet, with a concentration of fruit set. Fruit is quite large and smooth, with good firmness. Plants wouldn’t have to be staked or tied, which also would reduce labor and costs.”

Such a variety could simplify management for growers. “They’d just put them in the ground and grow them,” Scott says. “There would be one harvest instead of three. We think you’d get pretty nice yields off that one harvest.”

Of course, that means growers would have the expense of buying mechanical harvesters, but he thinks the economics would still balance out in the grower’s favor.