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All this adds up to a $3.8 billion-a-year bumper sales crop for the nation's 1,600 farm-machinery makers, especially for the handful of big, "full-line" manufacturers that together account for nearly two-thirds of all equipment sales. The largest of these are Deere & Co. and International Harvester, each of whose annual farm-equipment sales hover around the $900 million mark. The next biggest is not a U.S. company, but Massey-Ferguson Ltd., a Toronto-based giant (1966 farm-equipment sales: $726 million) that sells 41% of its products in the U.S. With other full-line companies like Allis-Chalmers and J. I. Case also in the running, the race for customers is keenly competitive. One reason, notes Deere Marketing Vice President E. W. Ukkelberg, is that the American farmer has al ways been "one of the shrewdest buyers in the country."
Power & Comfort. Equipment is generally getting bigger and more powerful, with the average farm tractor now boasting 65 h.p. v. 27 h.p. in 1950. The increased power enables farmers to pull bigger implements, cover broader swaths, move faster across the fields. At the same time, there is more emphasis on comfort. Combines and tractors are now available with roomy, enclosed cabs featuring such luxuries as heaters, air conditioning, radios, tinted glass, cushioned seatsand even automatic transmissions.
While machinery has eliminated plenty of agricultural jobs, sometimes it works the other way around, with labor shortages causing "forced mechanization." In the case of tomatoes, field workers, turning from arduous stoop work to higher-paying jobs in town, were becoming scarce even before the first mechanical tomato harvester appeared on the market in 1960. At Woodland, Calif., Farmer Bernell Harlan, 60, is part owner of a pair of $22,000 tomato harvesters, goes so far as to credit the machine with "saving the tomato industry for California."
It is with California-style fruits and vegetables that the boldest technological advances are likely to appear next. Scientists at the University of California at Davis have developed a lettuce picker with a sensing mechanism that "feels" each lettuce head to determine if it is ready for harvest. Similarly, an asparagus harvester is electronically activated only by stalks of the proper shape and size. For such products as apricots and olives, engineers are experimenting with shaking-and-catching devices already in use on prunes, peaches and apples; a mechanical arm clutches the tree and shakes it until the fruit drops into a canvas catching frame.
In some cases, new machinery will dictate the size and kind of food that Americans eat. In trying to develop a mechanical strawberry harvester, Oregon State University scientists are experimenting with 6,000 varieties of berry to find one suitable for machine picking. The impact of mechanization is such, predicts International Harvester Economist Dr. L. S. Fife, that crops failing to lend themselves to mechanization "will cease to exist as common commodities. They will become delicacies obtainable only at high cost through scarce hand labor."