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One area of research that John Verbrugge thinks has been overlooked is field sorting of culls.

Verbrugge, new president of the Washington State Horticultural Association, said the industry has made great strides in developing a mechanical harvester that uses robotics, although when it is commercially ready, the harvester will require significant capital investment from growers.

But he thinks technology from the packing line is available now and could be incorporated in the field to mechanically sort culls. “We should focus first on field sorting culls—it would be easier to implement compared to getting robotics going—and would pay back quickly.

“I would buy such a machine right now,” Verbrugge said, adding that there is tremendous value to the grower and packer to eliminate culls before packing and provide size and grade information before fruit is delivered to the packing house.

Verbrugge believes technology will continue to change tree fruit orchards and production.

Just as today’s younger generation is more technologically oriented than their older counterparts, he explains that younger-generation orchards are also more technologically advanced. The newer plantings—with dwarfing rootstocks, organized training systems, efficient irrigation systems, and worker-friendly tree heights—are ready for the future and can be adapted to mechanical harvest.

He notes that his company just pushed out their last old block of Golden Delicious apples that was 60 years old. “We couldn’t get people to pick the big trees.”

The younger-generation orchards at Valley Fruit are trained to a Tatura, V-style trellis, with 1,800 trees per acre. Trees are kept to heights of 12 feet, and platforms are used for pruning, thinning, and other tasks. ­Verbrugge describes it as an “organized” system, explaining that everything is on a wire, eliminating guesswork for pruning and thinning.

“Anyone can look at it and understand our directions. It brings simplicity to farming. If we want a branch on every wire, it’s easy for workers to understand.”