OR, “I’ll have vinegar with my french fries.”
Since I am what is euphemistically called ‘between jobs’ I agreed to help a local farmer with the tomato harvest. Faye worked for him last year and said he had real trouble getting enough help on Sundays because his Mennonite helpers don’t work Sunday. So I agreed to help on Sundays.
I really didn’t look forward to going last Sunday because it’s hard, noisy, dusty work. I didn’t look forward to it mostly because I’ve never done it. Despite Fayes’ vivid descriptions of last years’ harvest I was pretty well clueless. Faye said ‘Just do the best you can.’
Last Sunday we got to the field about 9AM. It turned out that two other people were helping, a 15-year-old girl and the farmers’ girlfriend. The tomato harvester is a contraption which is pulled by a tractor and run by the tractor’s power take off (PTO). The contraption costs perhaps $200,000 (that’s a pure guess and probably low) and was built and safety inspected in Dublin Eire of all places. Through mechanical magic, it pulls a double row of plants out of the ground, shakes off most of the dirt, cuts, shreds and discards most of the plants, and deposits what’s left onto a conveyor belt. The sorters, who work inside a sort of tented enclosure on the harvester, then sort and discard into a slot between the belt and the platform you stand on the bad tomatoes as well as any detritus that gets through the mechanical magic performed earlier. What gets through this step is then dumped into a wagon being pulled alongside the harvester by another tractor. When the wagon’s full it will be replaced by another wagon and eventually the full wagons will be towed to the processing plant.
Now I will switch from first person to second person.
The detritus includes small weeds; small tomato plant stems; dirt clods that range in size from peas to large fists; corncobs from last years’ corn crop; and the odd toad, snake, or mouse. The Roma-variety tomatoes may be ripe; green; large; small; split. There is also a percentage of tomatoes that are rotten and squishy. You know, the kind that you gag over when you find it in the fridge. The kind that you feel compelled to handle with a paper towel or even a glove.
That’s why you wear gloves when you work the harvester.
The conveyor belt has three speeds. About 1 foot per second, about 1 1/2 feet per second, and holy-crap-you-need-speed-to-keep-up. As already mentioned the sorter’s job is to grab and discard the bad tomatoes and detritus. On one square foot of belt there could be anywhere from zero to, say, twenty objects to evaluate. Basically, you have to see, evaluate, react, grab a moving target, discard, see, evaluate, react, grab, discard, and so on. And so on. And so on. There is no time to think about what you’re doing. Think about playing baseball, tennis, basketball, or hockey and how you have to quickly react. Except in those sports you generally get a few seconds’ break between sessions of having to react. Not so in tomato sorting.
Once the tractor driver starts down a row he will probably not stop until 1) there’s a breakdown; 2) the end of the row; 3) he sees that the sorters are really getting behind and stops; or 4) you pull a panic cord to stop him. Number 4) is frowned upon unless there is a REAL problem. You have little if any sense of time but suppose that each row, worked nonstop, takes about 20-30 minutes start to finish. So you are sorting for 20-30 minutes. It is inevitable that you will get behind, lose focus, have to scratch your nose, etc, etc. etc. A saving grace of the belt’s speed – no matter which speed it’s going – is that you don’t have time to dwell, and therefore gag, on that particularly disgusting tomato that fell apart in your hand before you could discard it.
Remember this statement?
‘. . . the sorter’s job is to grab and discard the bad tomatoes and detritus.’
You will not get everything. Detritus and bad, rotten, nasty tomatoes will get through to the wagon delivered to the plant where virtually all – but not 100% – of the detritus and nasty tomatoes will be sorted out before they get to the evaporator or whatever other production line(s) may be running. The tomatoes are used to make ketchup, paste, and every sort of canned tomato variety you see on your local supermarket’s shelves. But back to sorting.
While you are sorting, the harvester is doing its very noisy job. I forgot to mention the colour sorter. Right next to you, a device called a colour sorter kicks out the worst of the dirt and green tomatoes. Each time it senses same, it makes a noise like a marble sized hailstone hitting a tin roof. When it senses a lot of same, it sounds like a wicked hailstorm. The tented enclosure you work in keeps the worst of the dust out. A powerful and noisy fan brings in air. When the wind whips up dust the fan brings that in as well. Earplugs are a must. Goggles really don’t work.
When you reach the end of a row you can relax. A little. While the driver and the guy driving the tractor pulling the wagon get positioned to go up the next row, you can clean the conveyor and the colour sorter. When you eventually stop for a break you can make the farmer happy by taking some tools and cleaning out the various conveyor belts that feed the harvester. This last is dangerous work – you have to be absolutely certain that everything is shut down and the farmer’s nowhere near the PTO controls on the tractor.
Back to first person.
At maybe about 3:00PM-ish we saw the wagon was about full. Faye mouthed something that appeared to resemble ‘That’s it.’ So we finished the wagon load, the farmer powered down the tractor, grabbed our water bottles, and climbed off of the harvester. The farmer said ‘Oh no we have another load to do.’
We worked from 9:00AM until about 6:30PM with about a 90 minute lunch, which really should have been 45 minutes long but the farmer/tractor driver, his girlfriend, and the 15-year-old girl went to their nearby homes for lunch while Faye and I ate in the field. His dad, who is a very nice guy, had to call him and light a fire under his *** to get back to the field because Faye and I were ready to go. There was also one hydraulic equipment breakdown and one session of the farmer stopping to obsess over a completely pointless issue.
We were on our feet for about 8 1/2 hours. I believe we did 2 1/2 wagon loads; Faye believes we did 3 1/2. The discrepancy is sort of explained by changing wagon loading methods in the morning and our losing count of how many wagons were loaded. Each wagon holds around 20 tons of tomatoes.
When we got home we endured the dogs’ curious sniffs. Then we watched the dirt swirl down the shower drain. When I blew my nose dirty snot (snotty dirt?) came out.
I have a completely new appreciation for the hard work involved in bringing food to the table. Farmers don’t get statutory holidays. Nor do their workers. Labour Day is this weekend and that’s exactly what we will do – labour. Faye will work all three days and I will be there Sunday.
When someone rants about illegals or migrants taking jobs away from citizens I will (depending on my mood) either roll my eyes or tell them ‘Fine. Work the planter, or hoe the fields, or work the harvester for $10.50 an hour.’
It was hard, dirty, unpleasant work but it wasn’t as bad as feared. I am committed to working the next three or maybe four Sundays, until the farmer either fulfills his contract with the processing plant or an early frost ruins what tomatoes are left.
I also have a completely new appreciation for what Faye has done working on the tomato planter the past two springs; hoeing 90 acres of tomatoes the past two summers (which I very briefly helped with this summer); and working on the harvester. She was out there Friday from 7:30AM until about 4:00PM and the heat index ranged from 89F to 106F during that time. My job every day that I don’t work the harvester is to ensure that the dogs are walked; bills are paid; laundry and dishes are done; lunch or dinner (depending on when she finishes) is ready; and the bed is made.
And that the beer is cold.