Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Mechanizing the Tomato Harvest

October 25, 2021 Archive Insight
Man at wheel of vehicle with large conveyor built filled with tomatoes and tomato plants; another man stands at side and one behind

Machine-harvesting new tomato varieties, as depicted in the 1968 USDA Yearbook, Science for Better Living. / detail, THF621132

For millennia, people have domesticated plants and animals to ensure survival—this process is agriculture. And while most of us neither grow crops nor raise livestock, agriculture affects all our lives, every day: through the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the fuel we use to move from place to place.

But agriculture is also the changing story of how this work is done. At every step, people have created new technology and tools to challenge nature’s limitations and to reduce the physical labor required to plant, cultivate, and harvest.

People produced much of what they ate until processed foods became big business in the United States during the late 1800s. As market demand increased, and commercial growing and canning grew, it prompted changes in farming. Take the tomato. Canning required ample quantity to guarantee supply, and vast fields of perishable crops required rapid harvest to ensure delivery of the best crop to processors.

Black-and-white image of a tomato field with workers in it and boxes of tomatoes at the end of some rows
Workers harvest tomatoes by hand at a Heinz farm in 1908. / THF252058

But mechanizing the tomato harvest required changing the crop—the tomato itself—so it could tolerate mechanical harvesting. During the 1940s and 1950s, crop scientists cross-pollinated tomatoes to create uniform sizes and shapes that matured at the same time, and with skins thick enough to withstand mechanical picking.

Agricultural engineers developed harvesting machines that combined levers and gears to dislodge tomatoes from the stalk and stem. But humans remained part of the harvesting process. At least eight laborers rode along on the machines and removed debris from the picked fruit.

In 1969, the first successful mechanical harvester picked tomatoes destined for processing as sauce, juice, and stewed tomatoes.

two hands holding three tomatoes, at least two of them oblong; also contains text
The 1968 United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook, Science for Better Living, depicted new machine-harvestable tomato varieties that “all ripen near same time, come from vine easily, and are firm fruited.” The oblong shape reduced rolling and bruising. / THF621135

Today, all processed tomatoes—the canned products you find on grocery store shelves—make their way from field to table via the levers, gears, and conveyor belts of a mechanical harvester. But you can still buy a hand-picked tomato at your local farmers’ market—or grow your own.

The process of growing food still involves planting and nurturing a seed. But exploring agriculture in all its complexity helps us recognize the many effects of human interference in these natural processes—an ever-changing story that affects all our daily lives.


Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from a film in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s Agriculture and the Environment exhibit. The team that wrote and refined the film script included Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment; Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content; Ellice Engdahl, Manager, Digital Collections & Content; and Aimee Burpee, Associate Registrar—Special Projects.

Henry Ford Museum, farming equipment, food, farming, by Saige Jedele, agriculture

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