Auvil Fruit Company, based in Orondo, Washington, has developed a picking platform with two objectives in mind: to keep costly cull apples out of the packing house and to expand the potential labor pool.
For more than 20 years, Auvil has had workers use platforms, rather than ladders, to prune, train limbs, and thin blossoms. This has increased worker efficiency by 30 percent while reducing ladder injuries, said Walt Hough, operations manager. But the one job they haven’t done on platforms until recently is pick the fruit.
The company began to develop the picking platform in house six years ago. The first, and most important, step in developing the picking platform was to analyze the goal, Hough said. It had to be able to navigate the row, and there had to be a way to get the people to the fruit and the fruit to the bin. And workers had to be as productive as when working on ladders, if not more so.
Hough, who is Auvil’s “mechanics guy,” soon recognized that the bin filler would be the most challenging part of developing a picking platform. Auvil Fruit entered into a joint agreement with Van Doren Sales in Wenatchee and Fruit Handling Systems in New Zealand, who took charge of the fruit conveying and handling systems and electronics. Hough built the drive train, hydraulic suspension, and steering systems.
In 2005, they had a prototype ready to test and used it to pick a few thousand bins of apples. It wasn’t very reliable, but conceptually it was close to what they wanted.
Year by year, they have refined the design, focusing particularly on the bin filler, and they now have four prototypes in operation. Van Doren has gradually taken over the entire fabrication.
The latest version is 24 feet by 8.5 feet, with a 28-horsepower four-cylinder Kubota diesel engine. They have reduced the weight to 9,040 pounds, from 12,000 pounds originally, by using lighter materials, such as aluminum. It has four-wheel drive with independent steering on each wheel, so that it can move crablike and make sharp turns.
Empty bins are placed in the row ahead of time. As the platform goes down the row it picks them up at the front and moves them through the middle to the bin filler at the back. Full bins are deposited in the orchard to be picked up by a tractor.
The platform has two levels. Two people work on each side of the upper level, picking the tops of the trees, and two work on the lower level, picking the middle of the trees. They pick either into small picking bags or directly onto one of two conveyor belts, which meet at the rear of the platform where two people sort out the culls and place them in chutes going down to the ground. Two people walk in front of the platform picking the lowest fruit. The machine has a side-to-side leveling system to ensure that the fruit doesn’t roll to one side of the conveyors, which is critical for the bin filler to work correctly.
The company plans to use the machine at its 1,000-acre orchard at Vantage, which is on flat ground and has consistent plantings, but not at its Orondo orchard. All of the trees at Vantage are on a V system with 12 to 14 feet between row centers. The trees form a fruiting wall 14 feet high. Del Feigal, Vantage ranch manager, said the uniformity of the orchard system makes it more feasible and efficient to use the platforms.
The pickers are able to move around on the platform and switch places if necessary. Those on the top level can move laterally about six to eight feet, while those on the middle level can move within a 12-foot area. This keeps everyone productive the whole time, Hough said. Toe kicks and bars prevent them from accidentally stepping off the ends of the platform. A driver moves the platform short distances at a time, rather than continuously.
The two sorters are a key part of the system, Hough said. Asking pickers to sort is not successful because it’s difficult to do both jobs well at the same time and it slows them down. The objective is to avoid delivering cull fruit to the warehouse. Just like the good fruit, cull fruit incurs the cost of the bin it’s picked into, as well as charges for hauling, storage, and postharvest treatments, which amount to about $25 a bin. Feigal said the equivalent of about ten bins of fruit per acre might be sorted out on the machine, depending on crop quality. For the entire orchard, that would represent a net gain of $250,000.
The four prototypes have been used to pick Fuji, Gala, and Pink Lady apples. Granny Smith apples are more prone to bruising, but a few hundred bins were picked this year as a test. They were put into storage and will be evaluated for bruising.
Pickers are 15 percent more efficient working on the platform rather than ladders, Feigal estimates, but their output is the same because about 15 percent of the fruit is removed by the sorters. Pickers are paid piece rate, with the total bins picked by the machine averaged between the six workers. The driver and sorters are paid by the hour.
Only one support crew is needed to tend all four machines. One tractor driver deposits empty bins in the row, another driver picks up full bins, and one crew boss travels between the machines to supervise the picking and sorting.
Workers like the platform and are less tired at the end of the day because they’re not climbing up and down ladders a couple of hundred times a day carrying a 40-pound bag of fruit. So it becomes a more attractive job that more people are able to do, Hough said. “It minimizes the athleticism dramatically.”
Close to half of the workers at the Vantage ranch during blossom thinning and harvest are women.
Feigal said the project has been successful because the platform was designed around the needs of the orchard. “For us, right now, it’s what we need. I know there’s a not of new technology. Eventually you can make this thing more automated.” Bret Pittsinger, co-owner of Van Doren Sales, said the machine was built to function in the harsh conditions of an orchard. “It’s very solidly built,” he said. “I’m sure there are 15 to 18 other harvesters around the world, but you don’t see as rugged design as this one, typically. Some might say it looks overbuilt, but it’s really built for those conditions.”
Pittsinger said the platform is less technical and more mechanical than some other harvesting machines being developed, but more technology could be added in the future. The challenge with taking technology to the orchard is not the cost, but how robust it is in an agricultural setting because the equipment must be easy to maintain and repair, he said. “The higher-tech you get, the more difficult that becomes,” he said.
The platform can be used for other jobs as well as picking. The fruit-handling portion is removable so it can be used for pruning; blossom thinning; installing trellises, bird netting or sunshade; making trellis repairs; or tree training.
Pittsinger said Van Doren, which historically has specialized in packing equipment, is interested in supplying similar platforms to other growers. The potential cost savings are high because it can reduce ladder injuries, eliminate the expenses involved with taking cull fruit to the warehouse, and be used for multiple tasks.
“That’s what we’re trying to evaluate—what’s the true value to our customer,” he said. “The objective is to save our customers money, and if this can be a win-win, this is something we would love to manufacture.
Feigal said the project has been successful because it was designed around the needs of the orchard. “For us, right now, it’s what we need. I know there’s a not of new technology. Eventually you can make this thing more automated.”