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The Time Is Ripe For a Revamped Cucumber Harvester

IT'S harvest time in northwest Ohio. In the distance, a hulking tomato harvester has come to a stop. Bob Reed looks reflectively into the bed of his pickup truck.

When he first started farming, he says, migrant workers hand-picked his tomatoes. But improved technology, foreign competition, and scarce and increasingly unionized labor have pushed the industry to harvest by machine. ``I think all the unions and stuff have forced that on us,'' Mr. Reed says.

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That's an unusual perspective. It seems we live in an opposite age: ever-faster, techno-crazy, an age where society eagerly devours each new gizmo as it emerges from the inventor's garage. The march of technology is inevitable, isn't it?

Well, no, not in any specific sense. Instead of marching forward, a technology usually meanders, lost in the woods, until something begins to go wrong with the current system and people are forced to look for new methods. Only then does an inventor's great idea sprint forward. Society and economics push technology ahead at least as much as technology pulls along society and economics.

Which brings us to tomatoes, cucumbers, and northwest Ohio.

Tomatoes and cucumbers grow side by side there, destined for processing plants that will turn them into ketchup, pickles, and other condiments. For a time during the 1960s, it seemed both crops were on a parallel track toward mechanical harvesting. Instead, tomato harvesting machines forged ahead while cucumber pickers did not.

Why? The easy answer is mechanics. The first cucumber machinery used rollers, like the wringers on antique washing machines, to pick the fruit. The mechanisms couldn't handle the smaller, more delectable cucumbers, though.

The tomato harvester used a better brushing mechanism. But it wouldn't have succeeded either unless plant breeders had developed new varieties of tomatoes with tougher skins that could survive mechanical harvesting.

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Economics also favored mechanical tomato harvesters. Migrant labor became more scarce and more expensive. As long as hand labor is cheap, available, and not overly regulated, ``you probably use hand labor,'' says Joe Warren, business manager for harvesters at FMC Corp.'s agricultural machinery division. When the situation changes, farmers seek alternatives.

As it is, farmers in northwest Ohio can survive hand-picking cucumbers and mechanically harvesting tomatoes. This year Wally Wagner hired 48 people to harvest his 46 acres of cucumbers in Wayne, Ohio. He used to pay 400 people to hand-pick his tomatoes. This year, with the tomato harvester, he hired 11.

Of course, economics and technology don't stand still. Seasonal labor continues to dwindle in Ohio. Mr. Wagner says this year was his worst yet for getting good labor. The incentives to move to mechanized cucumber harvesters are growing.

Two years ago, FMC began selling an improved cucumber harvester that replaces the troublesome rollers with a brush mechanism that should be able to pick smaller cucumbers. ``It'll probably take 10 years'' for the industry to mechanize, predicts Harrell Huneycutt, FMC's cucumber product manager.

As with tomatoes, breeders will have to find ways to produce more cucumbers per plant to make mechanical harvesting economically feasible, Wagner says.

So the pieces are falling into place. Cucumbers are poised to make the technological leap, joining the machine-harvested elite of tomatoes, green beans, peas, and sweet corn. Will it happen?

``Possibly,'' Wagner says. ``I never dreamed that it would come this far.''

* Send your comments to CompuServe (70541,3654), America Online (LBELSIE), Prodigy (BXGN44A), or via the Internet (laurentb

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