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.”