The Holy Grail of varieties
Breeders want a tomato with a jointless pedicel, meaning the fruit separates cleanly from the plant without a stem attached that could puncture other fruit going up a harvester conveyor.
Varieties also have to produce good yields and have good flavor.
Hutton says he thought he had some contenders last season after two trials produced promising results. But last season’s wet, cold weather promoted rough-looking, misshapen fruit that would not have been unmarketable.
“I can’t underscore the difficulty of working with this type of tomato,” Hutton says. “It was really discouraging coming out of this spring’s trials.”
But the tough conditions also yielded some other promising prototypes that warrant additional trials, he says.
The breeding effort is being funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant that runs through the 2014-15 season. In addition to Hutton, Bielinski Santos, an assistant horticulture professor, and tomato breeder Jay Scott, both at the Gulf Coast center, are involved in the project.
WEB EXTRA: Mechanical harvester nears commercialization
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.