Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Mechanical Pickers: Part 4 of The Green Bean Phenomenon

                For twenty years the people of the Cumberland Plateau had spent long summer days bent over bush bean plants. Harvesting the snap bean crop was a wonderful source of income for people with little other prospects of income as well as mothers and children who simply enjoyed having something extra. 

                The farmers had progressed from walking behind mules to riding tractors.  Their crops had grown from Mr. Cooper’s single acre of beans in 1933 to fields over thirty acres.  Selling the crop had moved from daily auctions after carrying your beans into the bean shed to cannery representatives coming directly to the field to load the harvest.

60s era picker.jpg

                Now, progress marched onto the Cumberland Plateau in the form of mechanical pickers. These great yellow beasts swarmed onto hill and hollow.  As they moved along paths that recently hosted hooved transport, the machines seemed like they would burst the seams as they brushed against trees lining the lanes leading into fields. 

                These mechanical bean pickers were such a foreign idea that the people doubted they could ever succeed.  Surely they would destroy the entire crop!  Maybe they would just maul the fragile little beans!  No one wanted to miss the show.  As the drivers mounted their machines and engaged chains and pulleys, a great roar surrounded the onlookers.  The first picker rolled over the vines that had been so tenderly cared for all through the spring, leaving in its wake merely a green sprig devoid of fruit or leaves.  Delicate green leaves blew out the side as the picker cast them off as waste.  Standing on the rear platform a man had sacks awaiting the harvest.  And it only took a moment for the giant spout to start dropping beans; then the sacker knew his work was cut out for him.  He would have to work fast to keep up with the great machine which would not tire as the hours and acres rolled past.

                Quicker than anyone could imagine, rows were stripped bare.  Soon the pickers had covered a full acre.  The average five acre field that had required 40 hand-pickers and an entire day to harvest fell to a pair of the new machines in just five hours.  Platforms stacked with loaded sacks would be offloaded at the end of the field for the farmer to reload into the truck. 

                Even as loaded trucks pulled out of the fields, some onlookers were still skeptical.  But the pickers kept running and for the next 20 years they would be a fixture on the plateau every summer.  The models would change as improvements were made.  The sackers job would give way to great hoppers that would dump the crop directly into waiting trucks.  The size of the fields would grow and the number of mechanical pickers would continue to increase. 

                 In the coming years, as lines of the great yellow beasts rumbled down local roads they would become a welcome sight that signaled another successful crop.