Machine harvest is Holy Grail in lettuce
They're talking more seriously than ever about harvesting California's gigantic lettuce crop by machine.
Of course, they've been talking about it and working on it for 40 years or more.
Every adjustment or design change made to a prototype machine that might do the job brings the industry closer.
A harvest machinery guru in the Salinas area says his prototype harvester will be at work in the fields this summer. He has enjoyed consistent cooperation from growers, and counts on them for more, including their financial commitment.
But it hasn't been the lack of money that has slowed the development of a suitable harvester. More at fault is the lettuce plant itself, especially Romaine lettuce. It doesn't grow uniformly, so each head of lettuce popping out of the ground is a new challenge for a mechanical harvester.
Another major factor is the dedication and skill of those who have been harvesting the crop by hand for as long as it has been produced. Their experienced hand/ eye responses are superior to anything that any models of machine harvesters have been able to match.
Whether the prototype machines have been geared to cut and trim individual heads or sever every lettuce head in the row, they have always placed second to handpicking.
But handpicking is not easy. Even though human harvesters are paid well, they are tempted by off-farm jobs such as those offered by the construction industry before the housing bubble burst.
A machine that works gives lettuce growers security. No human crew can be as reliable as a harvesting machine that performs well. Using the machine saves money, no matter how much the initial investment might be.
To confirm the validity of investing in mechanical harvesting, growers have to look no further than the processing tomato industry, some of it practically a neighbor to the concentration of lettuce in the Salinas Valley. The future for processing tomatoes became dim in the 1960s as the Bracero program, which brought harvest laborers from Mexico by the thousands, was phased out.
But University of California researchers and a manufacturer willing to invest in a bulky trial harvester perhaps saved the industry. Today, practically all tomatoes grown in California for canning, ketchup, juice and the ever-popular salsas are harvested by machine. The industry is booming. Harvesting on time is never a question.
Lettuce is huge business in the Salinas Valley, the nation's salad bowl. It is a major segment of California's agricultural economy. Before it moves to growing grounds in Yuma, Ariz., for the winter, it makes a brief stop in Fresno County, where in November, 90 percent of the crop consumed in the country is produced.
Of all the salad vegetables so attractive to health-conscious eaters, lettuce is basic. It is sold wrapped, unwrapped, sliced, chopped, alone or mixed with other vegetables in a wide variety of packages and formats.
Lettuce is popular, and it can be profitable. Farmers who produce it are sometimes derided as needless gamblers because lettuce markets have tumbled through the years, creating substantial losses for them and the packer/ shippers who handle their crops. They always seem to bounce back to try again the next year.
Whatever the marketing environment, lettuce can survive and prosper only if it can be harvested efficiently and in a timely manner. That's a strong recommendation for pursuing the development of a mechanical harvester. That's what the current talk is all about.
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com