The tomato breeding teamat the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) works with urgency these days to develop genetic material to help the state’s growers better compete in a tough marketplace.

Jay Scott, the long-term tomato breeder at the GCREC, got a lot of attention the past couple of years for releasing the Tasti-Lee variety, aimed at putting a more flavorful tomato on store shelves. That effort did not deter him from continuing to look at other important aspects of the industry.

“We look at what’s happening in the industry and determine, from a research standpoint, what we can do about it,” he says. “Unfortunately, we’ve been seeing growers and packinghouses go out of business. We need to increase productivity and output at the same time we reduce inputs.

“Labor costs are one big thing where we can do something to help growers.”

Within two or three years, breeders at the Baum station where Scott’s team works will likely release a jointless, compact growth tomato variety suitable for machine harvest. This would reduce demand for hand-pickers, soothing the minds of growers concerned about labor availability and cost.

“We have a material right now that’s looking pretty good,” Scott says. “We’ve seen enough of some of the new stuff to know it’s pretty interesting. This project could transform major acreage into something growers can live with and stay in business.

“We’re seriously testing some inbreds. Plant height is about two feet, with a concentration of fruit set. Fruit is quite large and smooth, with good firmness. Plants wouldn’t have to be staked or tied, which also would reduce labor and costs.”

Such a variety could simplify management for growers. “They’d just put them in the ground and grow them,” Scott says. “There would be one harvest instead of three. We think you’d get pretty nice yields off that one harvest.”

Of course, that means growers would have the expense of buying mechanical harvesters, but he thinks the economics would still balance out in the grower’s favor.

“Not only would you have a one-pass harvest, production costs would be way down because they’d get the crop out of the field a month earlier,” he says.

“As a team, we’re lookingat the economics of the system. We think it has good potential to give growers an opportunity to produce the crop with less input cost. Hopefully, that will give them an opportunity to compete in the marketplace with Mexico, where labor is cheaper.”

Growers choosing to hand pick the new variety could also realize considerable savings. “They could get most of the tomatoes off with one harvest — that would be a big advantage,” Scott says.

He thinks current machines being used to harvest processing tomatoes in California would work for Florida’s fresh tomato harvest, with some modifications.

“Our Agricultural Engineering Department has actually worked on mechanical tomato harvesters going back to the 1970’s,” he says.

A possible harvest technique could be to first run a cutting bar under the vine, which would sit in the field a short time while tomatoes loosened, followed by the mechanical harvester.

“It shouldn’t need an abscission agent,” Scott says. “That could be explored, but we shouldn’t need it for this to work. Another possibility would be to spray an abscission agent before harvest and then not have to undercut the vines. Undercutting vines is what we did when we worked on this in the 1970s. We have to get water out of the plant.”

The new system could workfor vine-ripened tomatoes as well as green harvested ones, Scott says. “I think we can get the ripes off with a mechanical harvester. We’d have to market quickly through a pretty vigorous system, getting them up to Atlanta, say.”

Jury still out

The jury, is still out on that angle, however.

“In California, it doesn’t matter if there’s a little bruising of the fruit because it’s going to ketchup. But we’re selling fresh tomatoes, and that fruit needs to be blemish-free.”

A potential downside to the first new machine-harvest tomato is susceptibility to gray wall disease.

“It is susceptible to gray wall,” Scott says, “but others we’re looking at, which will be released a little farther down the line, look resistant. The first variety might have a certain amount of gray wall — that’s the only thing I don’t like about it.”

The breeders shoot for a variety that will grow in all of the state’s production regions all season long, a goal that is tough to achieve.

“It’s difficult to get heat tolerance in large-fruited, jointless tomatoes,” Scott says. “Because of that, it could be that this might not work for the first crop of the season, but would be suitable for a lot of the main season. For spring?

“We’ve got to test that out. Part of this research is to do enough testing to determine how it works and in what districts. There are questions we definitely still have.”

Scott stresses that research with mechanically harvested tomatoes is designed to help growers — not to put laborers out of work.

“There will still be plenty of hand harvesting tomatoes with the Tasti-Lee, with grape tomatoes, and with tomatoes that are being grown because they can be harvested once-over. What we’re hoping this will do is save labor in big acreage situations — that we  can get quite a lot of boxes shipped out this way.”

Since the new compact varieties are designed to be harvested earlier than tomatoes growers have been growing, disease and insect control along with proper fertility will be key to maximizing yield.

“I don’t think these things are going to be issues, but we’ll need to monitor them,” Scott says. “Certain growers may have to change their agronomic practices to make this thing work. It’s a package approach.

“We’ve worked on this quite a long timeover a number of years, and we’re quite excited about it from a number of standpoints. We’re now doing extensive testing and, depending on how good things look, we could release something in 2013. But, 2014 might be a more realistic timeframe.”

In addition to machine harvested tomato research, Scott and his associate, Sam Hutton, stay busy exploring a number of other agronomic possibilities for tomatoes. A gray wall-resistant Tasti-Lee variety remains a distinct near-term possibility, Scott says.

“In Dade County, for two weeks this year, they had to throw out 50 percent of the Tasti-Lee crop because of gray wall. Breeders never like to see something like that, and neither do farmers, because they have to just put that fruit on the ground.

“When I get e-mails from consumers saying they bought Tasti-Lees that had gray wall — and I do get them — I feel just terrible. With the advent of genomes and markers, we now have candidate genes for gray wall resistance. Growers, packers, breeders — everybody is committed to quality to keep this brand alive. And we don’t want to compromise on flavor.”

Other diseases, such as crown rot and spotted wilt, have the breeders’ attention, as well. They’ve also identified a bacterial spot resistance gene in the pepper plant that can be inserted into commercial tomato varieties.

Even though pepper is genetically closely related to tomatoes, that makes the disease-resistant tomatoes genetically modified — a hot button issue for some consumers.

“It has really good resistanceto bacterial spot,” Hutton says. “The upside is that yields are better; it doubled yield over Florida 47, the standard variety, and it uses less pesticide. From that point of view, you’re helping the environment and increasing production.

“It is no threat to the environment, or to anybody. You’re already consuming that gene when you eat bell pepper. But how will consumers react? Will anybody grow it? They will if tomato buyers will buy it.

“We’re saying, first, let’s get a product, varieties that could work. Then we’ll let the political end go where it goes.”

Projects like these make the breeders positive about the long-term future of Florida’s tomato business, even though the past few years have been rough for growers.

“This is cool stuff we’re doing,” Hutton says. “I’m pretty excited about the possibilities. Technology has opened quite a few doors. To use a football analogy, we’re getting in the ‘red zone’ with the compact growth and disease-resistant characteristics. Now, we’re going to try to get a touchdown. We think we can do it.”