Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor : A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology
University of Chicago Press
The mechanical tomato harvester, a remarkable device perfected by researchers at the University of California from the late 1940s to the present offers an illustrative tale. The machine is able to harvest tomatoes in a single pass through a row, cutting the plants from the ground, shaking the fruit loose, and (in the newest models) sorting the tomatoes electronically into large plastic gondolas that hold up to twenty-five tons of produce headed for canning factories. To accommodate the rough motion of these harvesters in the field, agricultural researchers have bred new varieties of tomatoes that are hardier, sturdier, and less tasty than those previously grown.
The harvesters replace the system of handpicking in which crews of farm workers would pass through the fields three or four times, putting ripe tomatoes in lug boxes and saving immature fruit for later harvest. Studies in California indicate that the use of the machine reduces costs by approximately five to seven dollars per ton as compared to hand harvesting. But the benefits are by no means equally divided in the agricultural economy. In fact, the machine in the garden has in this instance been the occasion for a thorough reshaping of social relationships involved in tomato production in rural California.
By virtue of their very size and cost of more than $50,000 each, the machines are compatible only with a highly concentrated form of tomato growing. With the introduction of this new method of harvesting, the number of tomato growers declined from approximately 4,000 in the early 1960s to about 600 in 1973, and yet there was a substantial increase in tons of tomatoes produced. By the late 1970s and estimated 32,000 jobs in the tomato industry had been eliminated as a direct consequence of mechanization. Thus, a jump in productivity to the benefit of very large growers has occurred at the sacrifice of other rural agricultural communities.