13 March 1998

The race is on to gather

in 60,000t of tomatoes

HAVING driven hundreds of miles through a parched brown landscape, where sheep and cattle struggle to eke out an existence, I arrived at an irrigated wonderland. Were near the town of Griffith, 450 miles west of Sydney, where water is pumped from the Murrumbidgee river for local crop-growing.

Its late January and summer temperatures average a sweltering 37C (99F). Im here to spend a few days looking at Australias first contract tomato harvesting team. A fleet of equipment is lined up ready for its three-month trip south into Victoria to follow the ripening crop as the season progresses.

The origins of the Cedenco harvesting team are rather curious. The business began life in New Zealand in 1985 growing 28ha (70 acres) of tomatoes. By the mid 90s it had expanded to 450ha (1100 acres) of the crop around Poverty Bay in the North Island.

But rising land rents, an erratic climate and the distance from markets prompted a move to Australia in 1996. All the equipment, including the processing plant for turning the tomatoes into paste, as well as the tractors, harvesters and sprayers, was shifted to Australia in 47 shipping containers.

The factory was reassembled at Echuca Victoria on the Murray river, and 530ha (1300 acres) bought or rented for the first crop. Some 100ha (250 acres) of the land was virgin bush that had never grown a crop.

Compared to a typical NZ annual land rental cost of £670/ha (£270/acre), land in Australia was cheap – the 100ha of virgin land was bought for £185/ha (£75/acre). The land was divided into 20ha (50-acre) blocks and levelled to a slope of 1:2000 by laser-guided graders to ensure an even flow of flood irrigation water between the beds.

Total costs to buy, develop, and irrigate an acre here in outback New South Wales were roughly equivalent to a years rental back New Zealand.

Farming operations manager is Jim Geltch, a successful Australian tomato grower who was bought out by Cedenco. Crops were established here and at two more locations within a 200-mile radius to give a longer harvest season. The 530ha (1300-acre) total acreage was planned to give a 30,000-35,000t crop, or 30% of factory capacity, with the remainder coming from contracted growers.

These growers were given the option of using the Cedenco company harvest team or to continue using older farmer-owned machines that deliver fruit in half-tonne wooden boxes. In total the harvest team was expected to collect 50,000-60,000t of the crop.

The fleet

The huge tonnages involved mean big machinery is called for. The convoy leaving the yard consists of three giant Californian harvesters, a pair of 25t forklifts hired from a shipping container terminal in Melbourne and six tractors with flat trailers. A workshop truck tows the field office, and a shipping container full of spares is loaded onto one of the empty trailers.

During the month I was with the team, we harvested round the clock. A total of 16 people were employed on each 12-hour shift, some as harvester drivers, some as tractor drivers and some as fruit graders. A fourth harvester was on standby the whole time in case there was a major breakdown. Its a no-expense-spared operation and some unusual modifications are made to the machines to improve field efficiency.

Each of the three harvesters is backed up by a pair of 160hp tractors towing specially-built 6m (20ft) tri-axle trailers. These have a front axle that allows variable weight transfer onto the tractor drawbar, as well as variable-width axles to accommodate different bed widths.

Each trailer also had a computerised weighing system that gave an in-cab printout of each load and signalled automatically to the harvester driver once a preset load weight had been reached.

All the fruit is loaded into 6m (20ft) long steel bins on the trailers. In total we had a pool of 60 bins, each with a capacity 12-15t. At the headland or roadside full bins are lifted off by the giant forklifts and put on long distance trucks.

It took the trucks up to 10 hours to make a round trip from the field to the processing facility. At the peak 28 trucks were operating round the clock on a 200 mile, one-way track.

The harvesters were all four-wheel-drive and four-wheel-steer, with the engine having to power a total of 21 hydraulic motors as well as a series of electronic sorters. The entire tomato plant goes into the machine, where the fruit is removed by shakers, fans, and electronic colour sorters (to remove green fruit).

Yields varied, but one night two harvesters achieved an output of 340t in five hours. Thats an output of 34t/hour/machine in a high-yielding 110t/ha (45t/acre) crop. Though we could dispatch over 700t from a 12-hour nightshift, the slightest rain would stop harvesting on the sticky, black clay soils.

Co-ordination of the convoy was overseen by a US harvest team veteran, a colourful character who was flown over to supervise operations.

Temperatures hit 42c

During February we zigzagged around the tomato farms of central NSW, moving on every few days and sometimes returning to a farm to catch a later-ripening variety. Temperatures hit 42C (108F) in the shade on our hottest day and the machines working amidst dustclouds, struggling to cope with overheating.

As the end of February approached, a heat wave suddenly speeded up the ripening of the crop and the spare harvester had to be fired up. It and a second harvester were loaded onto trucks and taken the few hundred miles down to Victoria, while the tractors were driven there – a one hour drive.

I stayed with the other half of the fleet in NSW, but then left them as they began the gradual harvesting trek southwards before regrouping in March. It had certainly been a fascinating month.

Co Cork farmers son

Patrick Cotter spent a month

with a tomato-harvesting crew in

Australia and found the scale of

the operation truly mind-blowing

Above:A laser-guided grader developing land for the Cedenco project. Left: Three harvesters on the go in New South Wales. Each can manage a throughput of 34t/hour in a high-yielding crop.

Above:The tomato harvesters are made in California and are four-wheel drive and four-wheel steer. Each has a total of 21 hydraulic motors powering different components. Right: Farming operations manager Jim Geltch was a successful tomato grower who was bought out by Cedenco.

Left: Two harvesters work their way across a tomato field. Each is backed up by a pair of 6m (20ft) trailers pulled by 160hp tractors.

Above: Tomatoes are unloaded into a trailer – they will eventually go for tomato paste. Right: A pair of 79t roadtrains prepare to head off to the processors. Below: A 25t forklift loads the tomato bins on to long-distance trucks.