Earlier this year we visited with Scott Hoffman, Field Manager with Furmano's at Earl Lake's farm in Pennsylvania Furnace to see processing tomato transplants being planted. This morning (August 30, 2016) we headed back to the farm to see the tomato harvest.
Before seeing the harvester, Scott reflected on the growing season. It was dry which resulted in running the irrigation system 6 times. Even using the irrigation system, the average ton of tomatoes harvested per acre was down from an average of 38 to 40 tons to 33 to 34 tons. Scott said, "We can't do with irrigation what Mother Nature can do." In terms of irrigation systems, Scott prefers drip the best because moisture levels in the plant canopy are not affected which minimizes disease pressure. Center pivot overhead systems result in increased diseases compared to drip and traveling guns cause water to splash more which spreads diseases.
High temperatures also affected plant growth and development. For harvesting, the goal is to have a certain ratio of red, breaker, mature green and immature green tomatoes. Etherol is sprayed on the plants 10 to 14 days before harvest so the green tomatoes will mature. This increases the amount of tomatoes that can be processed. Ideally tomatoes taken to the processing plant will have peelable skins. This allows the most flexibility as they can be processed on the peeling or crushing lines. At a certain point tomato skins can become too soft and can only be used in crushing lines. The harvesting process itself can soften up the fruit, which is another factor. High day temperatures, above 85°F, and/or high night temperatures, above 70°F, can result in reduced fruit set.
This year, Scott has been seeing "separated sets" and "split sets". For both, the ratio of red, breaker, mature green, and immature green tomatoes is off. This makes deciding when to harvest trickier, if Scott waits too long for the immature greens to mature, the reds may be over-mature and not good for processing. On the other hand, if he doesn't wait long enough more green fruit is left in the field.
We also talked about how the combination of hot and dry weather affected weed pressure. It took longer for the tomato plants to become large enough to "close the rows" or grow between rows. Once rows are closed, weed pressure is less. Additionally, Scott is seeing more pressure from herbicide resistant pigweed and lambsquarters. As a result, there were more weeds in the field than usual. Scott wasn't concerned with the amount of weeds in the field though. The etherol spray speeds up dying of the tomato plants and the weeds in the field shaded the tomato fruit, helping to avoid sunscald.
Tomato plants ready for harvest. More weeds were seen in the field than usual. Photo: Tom Butzler
Harvest started on August 24th, 2016 and will continue for about another week. So far, about 22 acres had been harvested at the farm using a Pik Rite 190 harvester. Furmano's has a fleet of 5. Their fleet also includes the 240 and HC290 models. The 190 model can harvest 12 to 15 loads on a 45 ton/acre crop in one day.
The coordination of trucks and incoming loads to the processing plants is a complicated job overseen by a central dispatcher. As an example, if a harvester is broken down on one farm, the dispatcher will coordinate with another farm to bring in more loads of tomatoes to the processing plant so that it is continuously running. Scott said that there is "a lot of gray hair this time of year."
Pik Rite 190 tomato harvester loading tomatoes into a trailer bed. Photo: Tom Butzler
The harvester first cuts plants about 1 to 1 ½ inches below the soil line. Plants run through two big shakers with large plastic pegs that separate fruit from the plants. Plants are thrown back in the field. A fan blows out leaf material left behind and tomatoes move to a conveyor belt where two people remove large debris - mostly large rocks. At this point the tomatoes are a mix of green and red. They then are moved through an "electric eye" or color sorter that removes the green ones. This is really effective, but some reds are sorted out with the green ones. Between this and fruit left on the plant about 10-15% of fruit that could be processed is left in the field.
The red tomatoes continue down the conveyor belt where 6 more workers sort out any remaining debris or bad tomatoes. From there, one last ride on a conveyor belt moves the tomatoes to a truck bed for transportation to the processing plant. Back in the fields, plant residue is tilled into the soil and a cover crop of oats or winter rye is planted in the fields, depending on when tomato harvest is completed.
Tomato plants are cut below the soil line with large discs. Photo: Tom Butzler
Plants with tomatoes run up a conveyor belt. Photo: Tom Butzler
Vines are separated from the fruit and discarded back to the field. Photo: Tom Butzler
Workers on the final sort of the red tomatoes. Photo: Tom Butzler
Sorted tomatoes being loaded into a trailer bed. Photo: Tom Butzler
Field after harvest. A cover crop of oats will be planted. Photo: Tom Butzler
With all this going on, Scott is also already preparing for the 2017 growing season. He's talking with growers interested in producing processing tomatoes and taking soil tests to help in developing nutrient management plans for next year's crops.
Thank you to Scott for the time spent and information shared with us and to Earl for allowing us to visit his farm. It was a great visit!