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Picker Technologies, a Washington-based developer of automated equipment, is working on a mechanical harvesting solution for fresh ­cherries.

Sweet cherries have traditionally required a large work force to harvest and pack this highly perishable commodity.  The compressed nature of the harvest season, the fruit’s susceptibility to damage, and its relatively short shelf life make it critical for cherries to move quickly and carefully from the tree to the consumer. Harvest automation, in conjunction with orchard-based postharvest processes, has the potential to more ­effectively address such challenges.

Picker Technologies is a partner in a comprehensive cherry research project led by Washington State University and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative. It is developing technologies and solutions that could lead to improved labor efficiency, worker safety, and fruit quality.

The mechanical cherry harvester that the company is developing is based on a mobile platform that incorporates a shake-and-catch capability that is being developed by Picker Technologies in conjunction with WSU scientists at the Center for Precision Agriculture Systems in Prosser. The shake-and-catch actuator is less traumatic to the trees than are traditional harvesting systems.

Mechanical harvesting is widely used for processing cherries, but a different approach is needed for fresh cherries to avoid damaging them. The catch frames on Picker Technologies’s mobile platform are designed to avoid cherries impacting each other. Additional processes, such as cooling and defect sorting, could be performed prior to the cherries being loaded into the appropriate container.  By performing these processes in the field, shelf life could be extended and packing-house efficiency could be increased. Picker Technologies is evaluating a number of unique technologies that might enable these processes to be done more efficiently at time of harvest.

While the potential benefits of harvest automation are obvious, the ability to perform certain postharvest processes in conjunction with harvest could be just as compelling.

By improving productivity and fruit quality, this WSU-led cherry project has the potential to deliver significant economic benefits to the grower. At the same time, improved fruit quality, extended shelf life, and speed to market can only increase consumer preference for this wonderful fruit.

John Albert is vice president of business development with Picker Technologies.