The Tomato Harvester « Boom: A Journal of California

The Tomato Harvester « Boom: A Journal of California.

 

Some tomatoes refused to separate from the stem. Others smashed on contact. Others made it through the process, only to collapse under the weight of their fellow fruit in the bins. Lorenzen, an aeronautical engineer by training, has just watched his machine, perhaps his eighth or ninth prototype, liquify the fruit. It’s a long drive back to Davis. Nevertheless, Hanna remembered years later, that these drives—with hours on the road and nothing to distract them—was when their most fruitful collaborative thinking took place. They’d analyze the problem, reconsider the plants and the machine process, and come up with their next set of modifications. Gradually, as the years passed, Hanna knew nearly as much about the machine as Lorenzen did. He understood the limits of what the machine could do in the field, and, with this machine perspective, set about finding the fruit that could succeed. The key was a change in perspective. Instead of looking for flavor, texture, or even color or appearance, as he would have otherwise, he had in this project to learn to “look at a plant mechanically.” Flavor, liquid content, shape, and appearance were secondary to finding the properties that could be run successfully through the harvester. For Lorenzen, who in 1949 knew “nothing about tomatoes,” exchanges with Hanna, and years of watching tomatoes, allowed him to build machines that bent ever closer to the specifications of nature. In 1959 the team at last discovered, in tandem, a tomato whose thicker skin and oval shape could survive an automated harvest and a machine that could pick it. Called the vf-145 (sometimes referred to as the “square tomato”), this valuable seed proved that an unlikely and imperfect collaboration had finally blossomed.

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