This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
The tomato crop, only a few years ago, was subject to the most extraordinary market fluctuations ; good prices, during one week, were succeeded by others so low as not to pay for picking ; at other times no sale could be found at any price, and thousands of baskets were thrown into the dock. The growers stopped picking whenever the price fell below twenty-five cents per basket. There being no demand at home, the fruit was allowed to perish on the vines. Thus, when the first rush of the market had been supplied, the long summer during which the various plantings were ripening their crops, produced but meagre returns. It is true that the late crop was uniformly remunerative; but even of that a valuable portion rotted on the field. It seemed clear that the market was overstocked, and that the whole profit must be realized from those portions of the crop which came first and last into market. It must not be supposed, however, that when prices sunk to zero, it was because the public ceased consuming, for such was not the case. Consumption went on as impetuously as ever; but the glut was overpowering. No community had stomach of sufficient capacity to keep up with it. The cause was here.
In the effort of the grower to get one or two hundred baskets into market at $5 each, he was compelled to plant many acres. These acres, when in full bearing, yielded so prodigiously as to overdo the business. Every grower proceeded on the same plan. None had enough tomatoes at $5 per basket, but all had too many at zero. The business thus required something to equalize these discrepancies, some balancing agency by which the prodigious waste of the summer surplus could be utilized; in other words, a certain market at fair prices for that portion which annually perished on the vines. Yet it may be noted that, notwithstanding this waste, the tomato culture grew larger annually, because it was, with rare exceptions, an exceedingly profitable business.
But every emergency has its remedy. The regulating agency came at last through the operation of the canning process. Establishments were organized in the large cities where gluts occurred, and stood ready to sweep the market clear of berries and tomatoes whenever they touched a certain figure, the former at about ten cents, the latter at twenty-five. These concerns were soon able to absorb everything in their line. They bought up cargoes of perishing berries for which the dainty public had no stomach, and no avalanche of tomatoes was too huge for their capacity. One of these establishments in Philadelphia has employed four hundred women at a time in canning fruits and tomatoes, and consumed in a single season $30,000 worth of sugar. The canning business thus became a power in the market. It terminated the reign of gluts, made the grower certain of remunerative prices, stopped the practice of emptying cargoes into the docks, and so effectually balanced supply and demand as to protect all parties from loss, besides giving new momentum to the whole trade.
The art of canning is thus revolutionizing some branches of agriculture. It seizes on the most perishable fruits and esculents, such as must be sold immediately, and by preserving them for future use, distributes their consumption over the entire year, in place of crowding it into the brief period of ripening. The products of the canning factory became immediately popular. Establishments were rapidly multiplied, as the business was found to be profitable. Some were located where the desired productions were cultivated. Six years ago, the pioneer establishment of this vicinity was started in Burlington, N. J.; two others have since been built, and two additional ones have been put in operation within two miles of us. All these are large concerns. The three in this city employ, in the busiest seasons, some six hundred hands, two thirds of whom are females. The vast quantities of tin cans which they require are mostly manufactured on the premises. During the tomato season, long lines of loaded wagons are seen driving up to their doors, piled high with full baskets. On every road leading in from the country, these loaded wagons may be met, all having a common destination.
Boilers of forty-horse power are used for generating steam with which to cook the tomatoes sufficiently to loosen the skin. A large wire tray containing them is lowered by rope and tackle into the boiling water, and after a few minutes' cooking they are taken out and deposited on long narrow tables, on both sides of which are stationed women and boys, who remove the skins and crowd the tomatoes into cans. These are then taken to men close at hand, who solder on the tops, in which a small puncture is left open. They are then lowered, in other trays, into vats of boiling water, taken out, and the puncture closed by a drop of solder. They are then labeled and boxed for market. Wherever machinery can be advantageously used, it has been introduced ; but the larger portion of the work is necessarily done by hand. The three establishments require large capitals to carry them on. They disburse weekly several thousand dollars for wages, and a much larger sum among the farmers. Most of the operatives work by the piece, the young girls and women each earning six to ten dollars per week.
On going over one of these factories, a stranger will be astonished at seeing an almost indefinite collection of tomatoes. Wherever he may turn he sees them piled up by dozens of wagon loads, with additional quantities continually arriving. If it were not for the activity of the great army of women in the canning department, who are constantly drawing on the huge accumulation in the long sheds attached to the factory, the glut would be as decided here as it has ever been in the city markets; but they dispose of many thousand cans per day, thus keeping up with the supply. Another question will occur to the stranger: Where is a market found for this extraordinary quantity of a single esculent ? But the answer is astonishing as the inquiry is natural. All that these establishments can manufacture is sold in advance, and there are more orders than can be filled. The products are distributed over the country wherever there are railroads to transport them. The great cities consume them in incalculable quantities. Canned tomatoes are the daily favorite dish, from autumn to summer, on the tables of thousands of the principal hotels and boarding-houses. Private families are constantly consuming them. Every vessel that sails the ocean has the canned tomato among its stores.
It is found in every eating-house in the mining regions of the Pacific slope; in fact, wherever population congregates, there, it seems, this modern preparation has already penetrated. Its popularity has become so universal, that one can scarcely over-estimate the magnitude which the business of producing and canning it is destined to assume.
Here is a vast trade grown up among us within six years. Its effect upon the neighboring cultivators, in this brief period, has been most remarkable. The old fear of an over-supply of tomatoes has disappeared. In place of going abroad to seek a market, the market has come to them. These factories now contract to purchase crops of any extent before they are planted. Already they consume the product of nearly a thousand acres lying within three miles around us, not of tomatoes only, but of pickles, sweet corn, peas, beans, asparagus, and other crops. For most of these they pay prices agreed upon when the contracts are made, such as, with rare exceptions of the season, give the grower handsome profits, as he saves freight to the city, and commission. In the instance of tomatoes, the large quantities which formerly perished in the field now produce money, not a bushel being lost. It is true the grower agrees to deliver his entire crop, and thus foregoes the higher rates he might otherwise secure on his earliest and latest pickings. But then he exchanges uncertainty for certainty. The sum realized at the factory is probably equal to the average afforded by a fluctuating city market, as the contract system continues to be a popular one.
Under it, even the unripe tomatoes, at the season's close, are gathered before the frost sets in, and are carefully ripened under glass. Everything is thus converted into money.
This present year the tomato crop has been large and profitable. Our cultivators are annually increasing it. The production, great though it already is, may still be considered as only in its infancy. Under the stimulating influence of a steady cash market at the very door of the producer, no one can say how extensive the yield may become. A few years have already revolutionized it here. This revolution must necessarily continue, and will assume new phases not at present contemplated. Other factories will spring up among us to compete for the increasing demand, until this location becomes a vast manufacturing center. This enlarged market will lead to better modes of cultivation. Ingenious minds, seeing that an obscure garden esculent of thirty years ago has taken rank as a great commercial staple, will make fresh efforts to discover and introduce better and more productive varieties, until the maximum, if there be one, shall have been attained. The tomato culture will become with many persons a specialty, and thus, without doubt, afford a higher profit than if grown as a mere appendage to a mixed husbandry.