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Postharvest cooling and handling of field- and greenhouse-grown tomatoes

Although considered a vegetable by most people, tomatoes are actually the fruit of several plants of the genus Lycopersicon. Tomatoes are one of the leading produce items in the United States in terms of value and volume consumed. Preserving the quality of the fruit from vine to consumer is essential to successful marketing. This factsheet describes harvesting, handling, storage, and packaging procedures that will help maintain fruit quality. It also discusses the economic aspects of marketing the crop.

Tomatoes are grown in commercial quantities both in greenhouses and in the field. Fresh market tomatoes are usually marketed by fruit type. These types include full-size globe (red or yellow), plum (roma), and cherry. Consumers buy tomatoes primarily for their appearance but are attracted to repeat purchases by flavor and quality. Tomatoes are very sensitive to mishandling and improper storage conditions. Because they can be injured by either low or high temperatures, proper postharvest handling and storage methods are essential for maintaining acceptable quality and promoting long shelf life.

Tomatoes destined for the fresh market are hand-harvested, either with or without a harvesting aid. Machine harvesting is usually reserved for processing tomatoes that are specially developed for those markets.

Immature green tomatoes will ripen poorly and be of low quality. However, tomatoes harvested at the mature green stage will ripen into a product indiscernible from vine-ripened fruit. In the field, it is often difficult for inexperienced pickers to judge between immature and mature green tomatoes. A simple way to determine maturity is to slice the tomato with a sharp knife. If seeds are cut, the fruit is too immature for harvest and will not ripen properly.

Vine-ripened tomatoes should be harvested at the breaker stage to ensure the best quality. Fruit at the breaker stage, which have some interlocular gel and a pinkish-red color on the inside, are sure to be mature. Such fruit can be handled and shipped better than that which has more color, and it will often bring a higher price than less mature tomatoes.


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