Autosorting at the orchard
Technology that will be tested in Washington State this harvest could help apple growers sort out undesirable fruit in the orchard and avoid the costs of sending it to the warehouse.
Picker Technologies, LLC, a Washington-based company, and Oxbo Corporation of Wisconsin, are developing a picking platform designed not only to increase picker efficiency but to sort out the culls. Instead of carrying picking bags, pickers place the apples into tubes that carry fruit up to the platform. There, it goes an electronic sorter that places fresh-grade fruit into one bin and cull fruit into another. The bins of cull fruit can then be sent directly to the processor instead of the warehouse.
Jeff Cleveringa, who is in charge of field research and operations for Picker Technologies, said the machine will be able to sort fruit by size as well as for color and defects and report the data on an hourly or daily basis, or however often the grower wants it. It will also provide data on who picked the fruit and from what part of the tree.
Identifying the size and quality of the fruit at harvest would have multiple benefits for the industry, Cleveringa said. For the grower, it would save them a $75 in-charge at the warehouse for fruit that might only return $5 or $10 a bin when it goes to the processor. In addition, if 10 percent or so of the crop could be taken straight to the processors, it would reduce the volume of fruit stored by the warehouses so they wouldn't need to increase their storage capacity. And marketers would know the size and quality of the fruit in storage so they would know which storage rooms to open to fill their orders.
Mike Miller, director of international market development for Oxbo, said he planned to have second- or third-generation prototypes of the platform in Washington this fall to test during apple harvest. The company hopes to have a number of machines available for sale in time for the 2010 harvest. Miller expects the equipment will be affordable for individual growers because of the value it brings to them in addition to more efficient picking.