Tomatoes and Machines

I don’t know about you, but I find the appearance of the machine at left somewhat menacing. Give it limbs and tentacles, and I see it fitting nicely into the set of a science fiction movie from the 1930s.

But this is not a robot or space alien. It’s a tomato harvester, one of the first and the most successful. More specifically, it’s a U.C.-Blackwelder tomato harvester, made by Blackwelder Manufacturing Company, of Rio Vista, California. Farmers in San Joaquin County used this one, which the Museum acquired about a year ago, and others like it for decades. Ours currently sits in a large building at the Museum awaiting integration into a display about agriculture in San Joaquin County currently under development.

The U.C.-Blackwelder tomato harvester represents a milestone. The machine itself unifies several major functions—cutting vines, lifting them, and separating the tomatoes. It was developed at U.C. Davis during the 1950s by agricultural engineers Colby Lorenzen and Steve Sluka. But tomatoes at that time were too tender to survive machine processing. So U.C. Davis vegetable crops researcher Jack Hanna came up with a variety that had firmer skin, an irregular shape (so the fruit wouldn’t fall off conveyor belts), and enhanced ability to withstand crushing.

Marketing the U.C.-Blackwelder tomato harvester started 1961. According to the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE), “the machine cut harvesting costs by half and led to large increases in both tomato acreage and tonnage within and eventually outside the U.S.A.” In 2005, the ASABE dedicated the U.C.-Blackwelder tomato harvester as a historic landmark in recognition of its significance for agricultural history.

A delightful account of the harvester’s development, which U.C. Davis archivist John Skarstad has brought to my attention, can be found online under the title “Square Tomato” in the DavisWiki.

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