US: New apple harvester anticipates labor shortage

Machines have been not changed fruit growing as much as other kinds of farming over the last century. Most fruit is still picked by hand. But in a recent demonstration, apple growers got a glimpse of what could be the future. It’s a four-armed machine that promises to speed up the apple harvest.

But the harvester is more than a nifty idea. It might become a necessity as migrant labor becomes harder to find.

Four Armed Picker
The apple harvester is basically a platform pulled behind a tractor. There’s a mechanism that creates a vacuum and four long flexible hoses attached to it.

Pickers can stand on the platform, two to a side, and raise it to reach treetops. Or they can strap on a bucket and walk alongside picking apples from lower branches and feeding fruit into the hoses.

Mike Rasch, a fruit grower from Conklin, Michigan is one of the designers of the machine. He cautions that it’s important to feed the fruit into the hoses one at a time in a steady rhythm. “It can be a boom, boom, boom, boom. But not apples together, not a big cluster of apples,” Rasch says.

That’s so the apples don’t bump into each other as they’re sucked through the fabric lined tubes.

Hold the Bruising
Bruised apples are a big problem, especially in fresh markets where growers can get top price for high quality. So at the back of the machine, the fruit is slowed down and separated before it gently tumbles into a bin.

The harvester made a good first impression on Mark Evans, who strapped on a picking bag and fed apples into the machine. “It is kind of impressive how it goes. Your bag never gets heavy because it never gets full,” Evans says. “That tube just sucks the apple right away. It might be a great thing.”

But Evans isn’t yet fully convinced there will be little bruising. He’d like to see more evidence before committing to what could be a $90,000 piece of equipment.

MSU Extension has done some early testing and found the machine causes no more bruising than hand picking. Phil Schwallier, an extension agent from Grand Rapids, was part of the study. “My opinion is it bruises less than hand picking because there’s less fatigue of the worker,” Schwallier says. “The worker is not carrying a picking bucket. He’s not going up and down a ladder.”

Saving Labor May Become Necessity
Picking fruit faster, with less damage is the goal. But the harvester won’t work as well in traditional orchards where the trees are twenty feet apart. It’s designed for the newer type of plantings where smaller trees grow maybe a foot or two apart sort of like on a trellis.

The machine also was designed to solve one of fruit growers’ biggest headaches, an uncertain labor force. To grower Mark Evans the political turmoil over immigration issues in the last decade sends a pretty clear message.

“The general public is not sympathetic to farmers having immigrants if they’re not totally legal,” Evans says. “And the truth is probably 90% of them are not totally legal.”

Getting reliable, experienced workers for the harvest is a year to year worry now. It used to be, for decades, growers would welcome back the same Hispanic families. But that pattern is beginning to break down. Mike Rasch says that’s especially noticeable in the next generation.

“A lot of them don’t look like they would or need to do what their parents did,” Rasch says. “I guess knowing that you kind of got to think ahead. And this is kind of the result of that.”

Because it’s so much less labor intensive, Rasch thinks the harvester may even attract local workers, or maybe a few retirees who would prefer it to being a Walmart greeter.

After working out a few more bugs, he and his partners expect to begin building the DBR Apple Harvester for growers sometime next year.

Source: ipr.interlochen.org

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