Why mechanical harvesting matters
In late summer our tomato fields are full of machines, and our factories are busier than at any other point during the year. It is always a lot of work, but for us, this is also the most exciting part of the season, as we get to preserve the taste of the world’s best tomatoes for people around the globe.
Harvest defines our year
The amount and quality of tomatoes that roll into our factories almost non-stop at the harvest time is really what defines our coming year. Everything has to work out and all the tomatoes have to be processed inside 24 hours to keep them fresh and delicious. Speed is essential! Not only for our farmers but also for our quality control, since our quality standards can not move an inch even in the thickest hustle of the year.
We use mechanical harvesting in all of our fields. It might seem unromantic to some. However, for us, it is the best way to make sure our employees get treated fairly. With machines, everybody is safe, and it makes sure that the entire production chain follows our ethical principles.
Why mechanical harvesting?
Until the 1970s, tomatoes ranked among the so-called “union” crops because they allowed the large use of labour for harvest in inland rural areas such as, for example, the Ferrara lowlands area. With the selection of determinate growth hybrid varieties of tomato,and the introduction of the machines facilitating manual sorting first and the use of optical sorters later on, the harvesting has been progressively mechanised.
At the same time, the availability of labour has increasingly diminished and today only in some areas of Puglia a small percentage of manual harvesting still remains and is in the process of being completely abolished, also due to the strong pressure exerted by the authorities that fight against the phenomenon of caporalato (illegal hiring of labour) often associated, with this manual harvesting method.
We are proud to say Mutti was the first Italian tomato company that harvested all of its crops mechanically. For some varieties, like the small cherry tomatoes and fragile datterinos, this required inventing entirely new harvesting techniques. The only exception concerns the San Marzano DOP tomato which represents 2% of the tomato harvested for Mutti in 2019: being an indeterminate growth variety this plant needs to be supported by stakes and must be harvested manually in two or more stages.
What we require of our farmers
- Committing to the national legislation and best practices of the industry
- Keeping a list of all hired personnel
- Mechanical harvest of all tomato varieties
Using mechanical harvesting requires responsibility and developing the farm with a sustainable, long term mindset. Also driving and adjusting the harvester is a highly specialised skill set, which requires the understanding of complex machinery and its maintenance.
The benefits of machines versus people
Mechanical harvesting does not affect the quality of harvested products. Tomatoes undergo remarkable mechanical stresses therefore it is very important to start their processing in a short time.
On the other hand, manual harvesting with shaking of the plants inside the bins entails the total absence of sorting while traditional manual harvesting, where plants are shaken on the ground and red tomatoes are sorted, is a method that has a yield so low that it makes it totally uneconomic. The cost of tomatoes harvested with this method doubles the price versus mechanically harvested tomatoes.
Doing harvesting mechanically improves work safety because it lowers the need for unskilled labor while demanding a level of skill and experience of the pickers. Our mission is to cull all work-related wrongdoings from our fields and make sure all of our pickers have the best possible work conditions and long work contracts.
And what happens to the tomatoes which don’t get picked or are sorted away by the harvester? They remain on the field together with the other crop residues, and thus get re-incorporated into the soil, to help keep the soil fertile.
All our farmers are committed to our ethical code and principles of transparency, which run through our entire production chain. To make absolutely sure things are as they should be, we created an anonymous whistleblowing line to expose potential wrongdoing or ethical breaches.
Using mechanical harvesting speeds up the rate we can get our tomatoes processed without affecting the quality of the harvest in the slightest.
All of these benefits of mechanical harvesting make us hope that it would become an industry-standard practice in Italy as soon as possible.
So how does a mechanical harvester work?
The harvester is equipped with a cutter bar that cuts the stem at the base of the plant, one or two centimeters below the soil surface.
Above the blade a series of metal rods, called “teeth”, mounted longitudinally on a camshaft that rotates counterclockwise, always working below the surface of the ground, take the whole plant towards the belts that convey it to the shaker.
The reel above accompanies the plant in this path avoiding piling up of tomatoes and keeping a regular flow of the harvested product.
The shaker, formed by vibrating rods mounted on a cylinder with adjustable motion, has the task of gently separating the fruits from the plant. The plant, without the fruit now, is unloaded onto the ground by a separate conveyor belt – possibly after being shredded – while the fruits are handled on a series of other belts that bring the flow of tomato back to the front of the machine, to be loaded onto containers used for transport to the factory such as trucks, maxibins or palletised bins.
Optical sorters capable of intercepting and separating, with extreme accuracy, earth clods, green and yellow tomatoes from the flow of red tomatoes.
The one bad thing (not really a bad thing)
There is actually one downside to mechanical harvesting: it can’t be done on rainy days since the heavy wheels would damage the wet soil. However, we see this as a small compromise for all the proper mechanical harvesting, and for what nature does for us. That’s why we are happy to pick our tomatoes only on sunny days.
Did you know?
The UNI11233 certificate makes sure that no harmful biological, chemical, or technical methods get used in any stage of our production chain. It means that an accredited third party body monitors the entire supply chain to guarantee total control of the product; from sowing and harvesting to processing in the production site up to the delivery of the finished product to the final consumer. All stages of the process are documented and traced.