What is in this article?:
- Researchers seek to boost tomato productivity, lower input requirements
- Earlier harvest would cut costs
- Keys to maximizing yields
• 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.
• 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.
TOMATO BREEDER Sam Hutton says his new genetic work gives him an upbeat outlook for the industry. “Technology opened a lot of doors,” he says.
Earlier harvest would cut costs
“Not only would you have a one-pass harvest, production costs would be way down because they’d get the crop out of the field a month earlier,” he says.
“As a team, we’re lookingat the economics of the system. We think it has good potential to give growers an opportunity to produce the crop with less input cost. Hopefully, that will give them an opportunity to compete in the marketplace with Mexico, where labor is cheaper.”
Growers choosing to hand pick the new variety could also realize considerable savings. “They could get most of the tomatoes off with one harvest — that would be a big advantage,” Scott says.
He thinks current machines being used to harvest processing tomatoes in California would work for Florida’s fresh tomato harvest, with some modifications.
“Our Agricultural Engineering Department has actually worked on mechanical tomato harvesters going back to the 1970’s,” he says.
A possible harvest technique could be to first run a cutting bar under the vine, which would sit in the field a short time while tomatoes loosened, followed by the mechanical harvester.
“It shouldn’t need an abscission agent,” Scott says. “That could be explored, but we shouldn’t need it for this to work. Another possibility would be to spray an abscission agent before harvest and then not have to undercut the vines. Undercutting vines is what we did when we worked on this in the 1970s. We have to get water out of the plant.”
The new system could workfor vine-ripened tomatoes as well as green harvested ones, Scott says. “I think we can get the ripes off with a mechanical harvester. We’d have to market quickly through a pretty vigorous system, getting them up to Atlanta, say.”
The jury, is still out on that angle, however.
“In California, it doesn’t matter if there’s a little bruising of the fruit because it’s going to ketchup. But we’re selling fresh tomatoes, and that fruit needs to be blemish-free.”
A potential downside to the first new machine-harvest tomato is susceptibility to gray wall disease.
“It is susceptible to gray wall,” Scott says, “but others we’re looking at, which will be released a little farther down the line, look resistant. The first variety might have a certain amount of gray wall — that’s the only thing I don’t like about it.”
The breeders shoot for a variety that will grow in all of the state’s production regions all season long, a goal that is tough to achieve.
“It’s difficult to get heat tolerance in large-fruited, jointless tomatoes,” Scott says. “Because of that, it could be that this might not work for the first crop of the season, but would be suitable for a lot of the main season. For spring?
“We’ve got to test that out. Part of this research is to do enough testing to determine how it works and in what districts. There are questions we definitely still have.”
Scott stresses that research with mechanically harvested tomatoes is designed to help growers — not to put laborers out of work.
“There will still be plenty of hand harvesting tomatoes with the Tasti-Lee, with grape tomatoes, and with tomatoes that are being grown because they can be harvested once-over. What we’re hoping this will do is save labor in big acreage situations — that we can get quite a lot of boxes shipped out this way.”