On the Road—Furmano’s Tomato Processing Plant

In September, 2016 we met with Scott Hoffman, Field Manager with Furmano’s, for a tour of Furmano’s processing plant in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.
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Processing tomatoes in the field. Photo: Tom Butzler

Before seeing the processing plant where the tomatoes are processed into various products including pizza and spaghetti sauce, crushed, diced, stewed, and whole peeled tomatoes, Scott took us to Eppler Farm where 100 acres of tomatoes were being harvested. We saw tomatoes being harvested at Earl Lake's farm using a Pik Rite 190 harvester, at Eppler Farm a Pik Rite 290 harvester was being used. The 290 harvests twice as fast as the 190. Rows are still harvested one row at a time; however, the 290 uses a self-leveler to more precisely cut tomato plants just below the soil surface. It also has a wider elevator chain and conveyor belts and two color sorters. This technology allows for harvesting 25-30 loads per day with each load holding 20-22 tons of tomatoes. Another advantage to the 290 is that it chops stripped tomato vines before depositing them back into the field which speeds up their break-down once they are incorporated into the soil.

A self-leveler is one reason the Pik Rite 290 harvester can harvest twice as fast as the 190. Photo: Tom Butzler

The "electric eye" or color sorter on the Pik Rite 290. Photo: Tom Butzler

A tine (at the blue arrow) pushes a green tomato out of the machine, leaving red ones behind. Photo: Tom Butzler

The Pik Rite 290 Harvester can harvest 25-30 loads per day with each load holding 20-22 tons of tomatoes. Between the color sorter and the human crew, high quality tomato grades are sent off for processing. Video produced by Penn State Extension.

While we were at Eppler Farm we talked about different technologies and their use in managing tomato crops. This year Furmano's worked with a company who is experimenting with using small drones to detect plant stress. Drones take infrared pictures from about 300 hundred feet above fields. Dark green in the pictures indicates healthy plants while other colors indicate that plants are under stress. These areas are flagged for further on-the-ground scouting. To apply nutrients more exactly, Furmano's also custom hires a Veris soil EC sensor to for new fields. The machine maps electrical conductivity (EC) in the soil across fields as an indicator of soil texture. Maps are then used to create different zones in the field. Soils tests samples are taken from each zone for analysis. Using results, a unique soil fertility plan is developed for each zone.

Scott also mentioned that Furmano's works with two types of growers. "Conventional" growers have a tonnage contract which means that Furmano's Field Representatives advise growers on fertility, cultivar selection, pest scouting, etc. Growers make decisions and pay for production expenses. Field Representatives make decisions throughout the growing season for "TOPS" growers. These growers are paid a land rental fee and for every service that they conduct on the tomato crop. Both types of growers receive a base level of pay per ton of tomatoes accepted at the cannery with bonus pay for surpassing a certain ton of tomatoes/acre threshold. Bonus pay is also received for tomatoes that are of peeler quality (vs. canner quality). Since conventional growers take on more risk, the price per ton that they receive is higher than for TOPS growers. Regardless of the type of grower, all tomatoes are destined for the processing plant.

When a trailer of tomatoes is received, a 50 pound sample is assessed for quality. Inspectors are looking for tomatoes with decay, that are under-colored (50% or less red), with material other than tomatoes (rocks, clumps of dirt, etc.), that are grass green and with mechanical damage/sunburn/sunscald. If more than 8% of the sample has a combination of these problems, the load is rejected. Sugar levels, solids, pH, color of the sample are also tested.

Inspectors categorize unusable tomatoes into various categories. Tomatoes in each category are weighed. Photo: Tom Butzler

Trailers loaded with passing tomatoes are then weighed. Afterwards, trailers are parked until needed in the peeling or crushing lines. They don't sit long as within 8-12 hours of picking, tomatoes will be canned and stored in a warehouse. The first step in either the peeling or crushing line is to move the tomatoes from trailers to the first of several conveyor belts and wash them for the first of several times. Moving and washing the tomatoes is done simultaneously. Now that the tomatoes are on a conveyor belt they continue through various washing and sorting steps. We followed the peeling line to the point where the tomatoes were peeled before entering the inside of the processing plant.

Water is used to move tomatoes from the trailer to a conveyor belt. Photo: Tom Butzler

Tomatoes moving along a belt while being washed. Photo: Tom Butzler

Tomatoes going up the conveyor belt are in the processing line. Those in the stream turning left are in the crushing line. Photo: Tom Butzler

As this additional video produced by Furmanos shows--processing is a highly coordinated procedure carried out by machines and numerous people (the processing part starts about 45 seconds into the video). Space within the plant is used very efficiently: conveyor belts are anchored to the ground as well as overhead; tomato sorting is done by electric color sorters and by people overhead on platforms as well as on the ground. While we were there several different products were being canned.

Scott said that every morning they have a taste testing of current products. Furmano's works with an in-house chef who develops the various recipes used. He also works with clients on specialized products. Each product is monitored closely at numerous points in the process to ensure quality. At the end of the process, cans are stored without labels until they are ready to be shipped out. We were shown another area of the plant where labels were being applied to cans that were heading to various locations across the U.S.

Thank you to Scott Hoffman. Getting an up-close view and account of how processing tomatoes are planted, harvested and processed was a great experience.

Other articles in this series:

On the Road--Furmano's and Earl Lake Farm 

On the Road--Furmano's and Earl Lake Farm: Tomato Harvesting