Half-century of machine-picked tomatoes
by Sam Matthews
Oct 04, 2013 | 8705 views | 0 0 comments | 550 550 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An early U.C.-Blackwelder mechanical tomato harvester moves through a Tracy area field in the 1960s. Tomato vines, cut by a blade at the front of the machine, are brought into the machine on a wide belt and shaken to remove the tomatoes. Press file photo
An early U.C.-Blackwelder mechanical tomato harvester moves through a Tracy area field in the 1960s. Tomato vines, cut by a blade at the front of the machine, are brought into the machine on a wide belt and shaken to remove the tomatoes. Press file photo
It was 50 years ago — in late September and early October 1963 — that farming in the Tracy area took a historic turn.

It was the dawn of the age of mechanical harvesting of tomatoes, a development that revolutionized the way canning tomatoes, long a major cash crop in the Tracy area, were grown, harvested and transported.

With the end of Public Law 78 — the bracero program — scheduled in 1963, the days of hand-picking tomatoes by Mexican nationals were nearing an end, and the first fullscale harvesting by machine harvesters began in several tomato fields in the Tracy area.

I can remember standing a half-century ago in a 130-acre field of tomatoes farmed by Bob and Don Bianchi on Fabian Tract north of town watching a first-generation U.C.-Blackwelder tomato harvester moving through the rows of tomatoes.

There was a lot of intense interest in how the machine was functioning, especially as the H.J. Heinz Co. factory in Tracy was actively supporting the development of machines, along with varieties of tomatoes that could be mechanically harvested.

Several growers rode the machine, and Heinz officials, headed by chief California agronomist Willis Moore, arrived at the field to take a look.

Also present was Bert Blackwelder, then a young member of the Rio Vista family that was building the harvesters designed at University of California, Davis. He told me that a new pickup mechanism greatly improved efficiency of the machine over test runs the year before.

“This is one of the best operations I’ve seen,” Bert said. “The Bianchi brothers are doing a tremendous job.”

Don Bianchi, whose brother died in 1986, recalled his week “driving” the first U.C.-Blackwelder harvester through the field in 1963.

“There were some problems, sure,” said, “but the machine actually did pretty well. Blackwelder had a couple of people there to help with any problems.”

Bianchi, who grew tomatoes for 30 years before semi-retiring, said finding the right way to cut the vines to be picked up into the machine was a major effort at the start.

The machine was harvesting 12 to 15 tons of 145-B tomatoes an hour. The tomatoes, developed by plant breeder Jack Hannah at Davis to ripen all at the same time as much as possible, were smaller than hand-picked tomatoes and had tougher skins.

Meanwhile, out on Union Island, Steve Arnaudo and Ted Mancuso were trying out another brand of harvester, the Gill. Fred Sneed, who had been experimenting with mechanical tomato harvesters for several years, had five of the Gills making trial runs in Tracy fields. In addition to the Union Island fields of Arnaudo and Mancuso, and also Augusta Bixler Farms, Sneed was using two Gills in his own field on Patterson Pass Road (now Mountain House Parkway). Arnaudo Bros. is still growing tomatoes.

The Gill machine was larger than the U.C.-Blackwelder, capable of harvesting two closely planted rows of tomatoes at one time. Two other machines, the Hume and FMC, were also being tested, but within a few years the Blackwelder was the standard. Frank Coelho and Lindy Bacchetti of C&B Equipment became the area dealer.

Over time, the Johnson harvester, first introduced in the Woodland area, became the leading brand. In the 1980s, major changes occurred with the introduction of bulk transporting of harvested tomatoes in fiberglas tubs on flatbed trucks — pushed by Chuck Bailey, Heinz ag manager — and the development of electronic sorting. That streamlined the operation and reduced the number of sorters grading the tomatoes on belts by eliminating greens and dirt clods. Originally, there were six or more sorters — almost all women — on each side of the machine.

And while canning tomatoes don’t have the same impact on the Tracy farm economy as they once did — especially since the closing of the Heinz factory in 1998 — mechanical harvesting of tomatoes remains a standard of the canning tomato industry here and throughout the California growing areas. Johnson and CTM (California Tomato Machinery) are the two major brands.

Harvesting capacity has greatly increased on present-day machines, reported Anthony Jaques of Jaques Farms, which has two Johnson machines.

“We can count on harvesting at least 25 tons — considered a load — every half hour,” he said.

Jaques said that because of improvements made over the years in electronic sorting, the machines have only two hand sorters — one on each side.

Several major tomato-paste processors, such as Morning Star, use their own harvesters throughout their growing areas, but some growers use their own machines.

And varieties of tomatoes have continued to improve, along with chemical uniform-ripening applications. Heinz has become a provider of seed to its growers, proudly advertising that fact on ketchup labels.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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