Mechanized Land Preparation
Since Neolithic times, mankind has been on a quest to manipulate the environment for more productive uses. 7,000 years ago, farmers on Egypt's Faiyum depression used wooden sickles with serrated flint blades to reap their harvest. Today, the range of tools available to make farming more productive is staggering. Most of these tools are hooked up to tractors – which is why Tomato Jos pays a lot of attention to the state and usage of tractors in West Africa. In 1980, Sub-Saharan Africa had only 2 tractors per 1,000 hectares (Ha) of arable land; we were shocked to learn that by 2003, this number had actually sunk to 1.3! By comparison, the number of tractors per 1,000Ha in Asia and the Pacific region has risen from 7.8 in 1980 to 14.9 by 2003. And the tractor shortage is just the tip of the ice burg – Sub Saharan Africa has less than half the number of agricultural workers per hector than the average amount for developing regions (see this FAO report for further information). With fewer farmers and fewer tractors, it’s no wonder that the farming regions here are so unproductive!
The thing about tractors is this: they’re really expensive. According to this report by the International Food Policy Research Institute, modern tools are just too costly for smallholder farmers to use—even if they’re rented or communally purchased. Many farmers prepare their land at the same time of the year, which raises rental fees for tractors. And when farmers share ownership of tools like tractors, scheduling can be difficult and the risk of mismanagement and breakdown is greatly increased. Smallholder farmers are particularly averse to these types of risks. Thankfully, new tractor rental services such as Hello Tractor in Kano, Nigeria, are beginning to emerge, but until tractors are more widely and reliably available, many farmers will resort to using oxen, donkeys or even human power to prepare the land.
In 1950, Jack Hanna, and Coby Lorenzen, both at UC Davis, began to develop a system for mechanically harvesting processing tomatoes. Hanna began breeding a tomato whose fruit would ripen uniformly and easily detach from the plant during harvesting, with a thick skin that could withstand the stress of mechanical handling. Lorenzen, meanwhile, developed a mechanical harvesting machine. In 1965, 250 harvesters were sold in the State of California, and they were used to harvest roughly 25% of the tomato crop. Farmers loved the new system: by 1970, 95% of California’s processing tomatoes were harvested mechanically. Ever since then, the industry has continued to develop innovative ways to harvest as much fruit as possible in the shortest amount of time.
One lesson that #teamTomatoJos learned during our recent trip to California had to do with the use of drip irrigation. Approximately one week before the anticipated harvest date, the farmer cuts off the water supply to his or her fields. The loss of water dehydrates the plant, weakens the fruits’ connection to the vine, and facilitates ripening as sugars become more concentrated in the fruits. The result: lots of ripe tomatoes that can be shaken off the vine with minimal effort!
So how does this magical mechanical harvester work? It scoops up whole tomato plants and sends them down a vibrating conveyer belt that separates the tomatoes from material other than tomato (soil, leaves, vines, stalks). The tomatoes are funnelled into a flume and transferred into a truck that drives alongside the harvester in the fields. Meanwhile, the material other than tomato is shredded and returned to the soil via an exhaust flume at the back of the harvester.
#teamTomatoJos was very impressed with the mechanized harvesting that we observed in California, but we know the infrastructure in Nigeria is not yet conducive for smallholder farmers to adopt this technology. So we plan to start with the basics, building the farming capacity of the farmers in our network while we build up our capacity to perform mechanized land preparation and harvesting. What does this mean for smallholders? It means that Tomato Jos will provide access to land and soil preparation services such as ploughing, harrowing, tilling and ridging. It means that Tomato Jos will provide the appropriate and targeted use of fertilizer and agro-chemicals via boom sprayers. And ultimately, it means that we will be able to help our farmers to produce a larger amount of better tasting tomatoes!