Cesar Chavez & Electronic Tomato Sorter

A little known part of the history of Cesar Chavez is that he is directly responsible for the invention of the Electronic Tomato Sorter. No, he didn’t work on the project, he was the inspiration and provided the urgency to made creating an electronic tomato sorter happen. An inspiration that sparked several well-funded, top talent teams and of must happen projects in the Silicon Valley in 1975. One of them and the winner, surviving to this day as the company WECO, was a Mountain View Stanford Research Spin-off, Icore Acruex.

I was an electronics tech and field engineer at the time. I joined to help build a Rube Goldberg contraption to get red tomatoes and only red tomatoes into your Catsup bottle. It was my first R & D project and it was in the heart of the Silicon Valley in roaring 70s.

So how did Cesar Chavez make all this happen? Why is he, not my old boss Wayne Earl, really the father of the Electronic Tomato Sorter?

Here is a lesson in unintended consequences. In 1975 Cesar told the Tomato Growers that if they didn’t meet his demands, he was going to lead a strike and National Protest against Tomato Growers the next season. They really didn’t want to meet his demands and they were really scared.

What most people don’t know is that commercial Tomato Farmers are huge high stakes gamblers. Every year they bet millions and millions of dollars on land leases, planting, caring for and watering. Before they can make a nickel. They have contracts with the canneries for a specific number of 30 ton truckloads of tomatoes on each specific day of the season.

If they miss a day they don’t get to make it up. The crop is timed with a very short window, less than a week optimally, to be ready to harvest before it is to ripe and can’t be used. And if it rains in the last few week the Tomato’s swell up and can’t be harvested at all. It’s a huge gamble.

So, with the looming specter of a strike and total loss of a season; they turned to technology. The farmers got together with the harvester manufacture. They harvester manufacture did their homework and got together with Icore, who was already optically sorting beans and rice.

Apply enough money and the next season there was no strike because there was an Electronic tomato sorter. Which replaced 20 farm workers per harvester. It was cobbled together with 1959 Cadillac headlight dimmer photomultiplier tubes and Dr Bill Lapson’s state-of-the-art pneumatics. But it worked, Suddenly where there had been more work than workers for that 3 months, there were workers happy to get any job at whatever pay.

And that is why Cesar Chavez didn’t lead a Tomato Strike in 1976. It’s also why I worked round the clock, 90-120 hours a week for 3 months to keep the first generation of rushed to market sorters running 24 hours a day.

It made me realize just how much intention and money can accomplish when properly focused. And how it is only a job because payroll is less expensive than automation. That is an equation that has tilted strongly in the favor of automation lately.

Who will be the new Cesar speaking up for all the workers being made redundant today by robots and AI?

Happy Cesar Chavez Day Everyone!


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