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WSU Extension educator Karen Lewis expects to see more technologies used in orchards to augment workers, in addition to platforms.

WSU Extension educator Karen Lewis expects to see more technologies used in orchards to augment workers, in addition to platforms.

In the future, growers won’t need to get in the truck and drive to the coffee shop or to a neighbor’s orchard to find out what they’re doing. Instead, they’ll share information by instant video on their phones.

That’s the vision of Karen Lewis, Washington State University Extension educator for Grant and Adams Counties, who expects to see much greater use of new and evolving technologies, such as video clips, podcasts, and Flickr slide shows for fruit industry communication and education in the coming decade.

“We’re going to engage the new technology for quick, effective exchange of information,” she said.

There will also be more technology used in orchards to augment the workers, she predicts. This will include not just platforms, but mechanical devices to improve the efficiency of thinning and harvesting. “There’s so much talk about robotics, but that’s a big quantum leap,” she said. “In between that, what I see in the next decade is tools that augment the human worker.”

She hopes to see the development of a dry bin filler, so that fruit bins could be filled without using water. This is one of the key components needed to automate harvest in the field. At the packing house, a waterless system could help reduce the risk of spreading fruit diseases.

There will be more public-private sector collaboration in research and outreach, Lewis foresees. An example is a $6-million research project on comprehensive automation for tree fruits that involves five universities around the country, the Agricultural Research Service, and five private technology firms. It is one of several projects funded by the Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

“That whole program is creating a new culture, a new way of doing business,” she said. “It’s absolutely a multi-institutional, multiregional effort, but it also includes a lot of private-public collaboration in the research and extension components.”

Michigan

A decade from now, a significant proportion of Michigan’s apple growers will be using platforms and mechanical-assist technology to improve the efficiency of work currently done from ladders, such as harvesting, thinning, and pruning, predicts Phil Schwallier, district horticultural and marketing educator at Michigan’s Clarksville Horticultural Experiment Station.

Currently, only one in a thousand growers uses platforms, he ­estimated. “Ten years from now, I think it will be 25 to 30 percent of the growers.”

However, he believes it will be more than ten years before robotic technology is used in orchards.

Schwallier said the shift towards more mechanization will be driven by the high cost of labor and an inadequate supply. Michigan growers depend heavily on migrant workers from Mexico.

Many orchards in the state have been replanted in recent years with more modern, high-density systems, which are adaptable to platforms and other technology, he said. “That’s really taken off here the last three to four years. There’s a tremendous amount of new orchards planted here in Michigan, and I think that will continue as long as apple prices remain good. If they have the money to upgrade, they’ll do that.

“I think older-style orchards will be removed, and if prices are poor they’ll be removed fast, and if prices are good, they’ll be removed as ­growers are able to replant.”

California

In the California stone fruit industry, one of the most important trends will be an increasing emphasis on quality, with consumer satisfaction being the number-one concern, says Kevin Day, tree fruit advisor with the University of California Extension in Tulare County.

“I think there’s probably never been a better time to buy fruit, and I think this is going to continue in terms of our ability to deliver quality and consistency.”

There will be a decreasing emphasis on trying to differentiate fruit through variety names, just as the citrus industry sells oranges under the name “navel,” rather than Fukumoto or the many other varieties, he said.

“We’re going to deemphasize varieties to eliminate consumer ­confusion so that we have a consistent and positive eating experience.”

Packers and suppliers will use internal quality assurance programs built around trademarked names, so that internal standards become quantifiable and marketable, Day predicts.

As a result, growers will produce fewer varieties. Rather than trying to grow a range of varieties that ripen at five-day intervals, they will use various horticultural techniques so that a variety that’s in demand, such as O’Henry, ripens over a longer period.

“As producers become larger and more vertically integrated, I think we will see our people farming in different areas, so you may be growing a variety in the southern part, and the middle part, and the northern part of the state to allow for a greater marketing window of any one variety,” he said.

When growers produce fewer varieties, they will not need to replant their orchards as frequently. Currently, the lifespan of a stone fruit orchard averages only 12 to 13 years. Day expects to see the industry shift back to a 20-year turnaround, giving the grower more time to amortize the planting.