WEB EXTRA: Mechanical harvester nears commercialization

10/08/2013 01:12:00 PM
Vicky Boyd

The commercial machines used to pick processing tomatoes and the two prototypes being developed by Ramsay Highlander Inc., Salinas, Calif., to harvest fresh-market tomatoes share only a few similarities.

Both significantly reduce the need for labor and both deposit harvested fruit in tubs trailered alongside, to name a few.

But that’s where they stop, says Frank Maconachy, president.

A processing tomato harvester typically uses a cutting bar to clip plants from the roots.

The plants are then conveyed into the harvester, where a shaker that includes large agitating fingers literally shakes the fruit from the vines.

Processors can absorb a few bruised fruit because they’re going into processed products.

“But with fresh market, you have to devine them in a gentle way,” he said.

Ramsay Highlander has been working with a large California fresh-market tomato grower-packer and drew from its experience with much-more-delicate bell peppers to develop a just such a machine.

 The prototype machine uses a vine separator to handle the product that comes up quickly. During the experimental phase, Maconachy says the vine separator removed the tomatoes so well, they added a second separator and found it was much gentler on the fruit.

The fruit then passes through a color sorter that separates greens and breakers from red fruit. The reds are diverted to a gondola that goes processing, while the greens and breakers are conveyed into a separate tub for transport to the packinghouse.

A crew of about a half dozen workers also hand sorts, removing culls and material other than tomatoes that have made it past the electronic eyes.

See related story on developing machine-harvestable fresh-market tomatoes on

Even details, such as operator comfort, have been incorporated into the unit, Maconachy says. The cab is completely heated and air conditioned, and a screen hooked to cameras focused to the rear and on adjacent trailers allow the operator to monitor operations without craning his or her neck.

Maconachy says they’ve passed the beta-testing phase and are in what he described as the “gamma-testing” phase.

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