Growers in Washington and Michigan have been experimenting with harvest-assist equipment with the goal of being the employers of choice for a shrinking labor pool.
Last season, three growing operations used three different systems.
Don Armock, president of Riveridge Produce in Sparta, Michigan, tested the DBR system with a view to making the company more attractive as an employer and making employees more productive. The growing, packing, and sales organization sells more than a third of Michigan’s fresh apple production.
“We want to make sure that when we get down to competing neighbor against neighbor, we’re the ones that the labor force is going to look to,” he said during a panel discussion at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting last December.
Stemilt Ag Services, based in Wenatchee, Washington, used two Van Doren Sales/Littau mechanical assist platforms at a 40-acre orchard in Quincy last season.
Farm manager Justin Whitman said Stemilt’s main reason for trying harvest-assist technology is to increase efficiency. The company is interested in the potential for harvesting at night and wants to reduce the use of ladders both to reduce fruit bruising and to avoid the risk of worker injuries.
Mike Van Pelt at Green Acres Farms in White Swan, Washington, chose the Bandit Xpress harvesting system from Automated Ag Systems after assessing many other options. Equipment he had looked at in Italy, for example, seemed best adapted to very small orchards.
Over the last five years, the labor pool has been stagnant, Van Pelt noted. At the same time, more high- density orchards are being planted that will generate high yields per acre.
“With less people, it can’t get done,” he said. “We want to get more done with the same amount of people.”
Armock said he chose the DBR system because he knows the people in Michigan who developed it and had tested it for the two previous seasons. He negotiated an agreement whereby he used the system last season at no cost but provided the manufacturers with feedback on how it operated and all the data that would be important to a grower.
Some workers were reluctant to get on the machine at first and it took a while to get them up to speed. But once they got used to it, many of the pickers wanted to do a night shift on the machine as well, because they didn’t have to carry heavy bags and it was actually easier to see the fruit under the LED lights.
Night is an ideal time for picking, Armock said, and he feels that’s one of the real advantages of the harvesting system. Going forward, he’d like to run the machine 24 hours a day to spread the machine cost over a greater amount of production.
After using the DBR for the full season, Armock concluded that it is most efficient in tight, tall plantings that have a full canopy.
He used the equipment only to pick the tops of the trees. Because the trees have thin canopies, workers could pick the entire tops of the trees from one side, so the machine only went down every other row. Pickers on the ground picked the low fruit first, so the machine made no contact with low-hanging apples.
Armock said he was pleasantly surprised by the increase in productivity, particularly considering that some of the blocks were older and not designed for that type of technology. He used the machine on nine different varieties throughout the season on all types of orchard structures and had 8 percent less bruising than when pickers were using ladders.
His goal was that workers on the machine would be at least as efficient as they would be on a ladder. In fact, members of one crew were able to double their productivity, averaging 2.1 bins per hour on the machine versus 1.1 bins per hour on ladders.
“We were pretty ecstatic about what our costs were per bin using this system,” Armock said.
The differing speeds at which people work was not a problem because the crew takes care of workers who are slower than the rest, he said. “They’ll figure it out. They’re all fighting to make as much money as they can. The cousin who can’t keep up—he’s off.”
Whitman said most of the Quincy orchard is trained to a vertical system on a 3- by 12-foot spacing. About 70 percent of the fruit can be picked from the ground, so it was a challenge to find a speed for the platform that didn’t result in the pickers on the ground lagging behind those on the platform.
Ground pickers were trained to pick from the bottom of the trees upwards so that workers on the platform could reach down to help them out with the middle of the tree if necessary.
He thinks picking from the ground first as a separate operation makes sense in a situation where much of the fruit can be reached from the ground.
The company is hoping for a 20 to 30 percent increase in efficiency after the trial period. The harvesting system has a conveyor belt where two employees can sort out culls before the fruit goes into the bin, so fruit quality should be better, too, Whitman said.
Initially, experienced workers were reluctant to use the machine, he said. “They’re there to make a living, they’ve done it forever and don’t want to conform to a new style of picking. It was a challenge to get them to cooperate.”
When one vocal person began grumbling, the attitude spread to the others.
Whitman said there’s a huge difference between working as an individual picker and working on the platform. Pickers on the machine had to work more as a team and be aware of when they should dump their buckets of fruit onto the conveyor in order to avoid backups.
“The team aspect is huge when you’re picking to a single conveyor,” Whitman said. “You have to understand your role as a team player.”
He found that H-2A foreign guest workers, who were new to picking, adapted to the machine more easily than skilled workers.
“They come together, they live together, and they form a team faster,” he said. “Their lack of experience really helped us form them into the pickers we wanted. That was an advantage for us. There’s always one guy who emerges as a leader, and he keeps everyone in check.”
The orchard ran two machines at the same time, and a healthy competition emerged between the two crews.
The harvesting gear can be removed from the Van Doren/Littau platform so it can be used for other tasks. Whitman said he saw the greatest gains in efficiency when using the platform for pruning. Workers stand on the platform and use hydraulic loppers.
Van Pelt said he tested three Bandit Xpress machines in a number of blocks with different systems, spacings, and varieties. He was hoping for a 20 percent increase in efficiency, but it exceeded his expectations.
“I don’t think anything was a push,” he said. “Everything seemed to be double what we did off the ladder.”
Not all workers welcomed the idea of the platform, however. In the spring, they introduced the machines with a crew of 25 people, and ended up with 14 who worked on them.
“Two people right off the get-go were shaking their heads,” he said. “They’ve been around a long time and said, ‘It’s not going to work.’”
Van Pelt said he had other jobs for those who didn’t want to be on platforms. Some of the best workers on the platforms had never picked an apple before. They had men and women aged anywhere from 17 to over 60.
“I think they’re pretty open to it once they see what it’s like,” he said, noting that removing the ladder greatly simplifies the picking process.
The gain in productivity was such that they were able to field sort some fruit they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. They operated two 11-hour shifts per day (24 hours a day with two one-hour breaks for refueling, etc.) for two months and were ahead of schedule picking Galas for the first time ever.
Van Pelt said he hadn’t thought about doing night work before getting the machine, but now believes it’s an option that growers need to have.
“That’s where we used a lot of H-2A people,” he said. “They’re here to work, and they wanted to work at night time.”
The platforms increased the efficiency of other harvest operations besides picking. A crew boss was able to supervise pickers on three platforms. Since he didn’t have to walk back and forth between individual pickers, he was able to spend more time with the crews.
Slow workers were not a problem, he said. “You’ll find the slacker, but every one of the crew will police themselves, and they’ll get on that guy when they have to start making up for his inefficiencies.”
Van Pelt used the platforms for many different orchard tasks, from installing trellis wire to tree training, pruning, and thinning, as well as harvesting. Blossom thinning was done at night, as the blossoms show up well under the LED lights. He also did night-time pruning.
“We’ve done everything with it,” he said, estimating that he put 2,500 hours on the three machines last season. “If you’re saving 10 percent on something, minimum, it doesn’t take long to pay something like that off.” •