About 50 people—growers and their employees—attended a late-September demonstration in the Jonagold orchard owned by David Rennhack in Hart, Michigan. Two days earlier, another demonstration had taken place at Applewood Orchards in Deerfield, and others were held later at Evans Brothers near Frankfort and at Riveridge Packing near Sparta.
Mike Rasch, the R in DBR, said the goal was to give growers hands-on experience with the machine. About 200 people experienced it during the Michigan demonstrations, before the machine moved on to Pennsylvania for more demonstrations.
Rasch predicted the machine would be for sale the next year—“barring any serious setbacks”—and would probably cost between $90,000 and $95,000. Two slightly different versions of the machine may be available, one catering to the needs of eastern growers and one better suited to the West.
The harvesters will be built by Phil Brown Welding, Conklin, Michigan, the B in DBR.
Since work on the prototype began about three years ago, the machine has undergone several improvements, Rasch said.
In early versions, pickers placed apples directly into vacuum tubes that had small, funnel-like openings. In the newest version, conventional metal picking buckets were cut down and adapted to fit on the tubes. A picker wears the bucket in the conventional manner, with its harness, thus freeing both hands to pick. No need to hold or move the tube. The apples placed in the bucket quickly disappear, sucked into the vacuum tube.
“Look, it’s grabbing my shirt,” one grower exclaimed as he admired the vacuum.
The picking buckets were implemented at the suggestion of growers and Karen Lewis in Washington State. “We’ll probably put the buckets on all the machines,” Rasch said. “Everybody who tried them liked them. The whole idea was to give mobility to the pickers and not create work stations. This is definitely faster.”
Chuck Dietrich, the D in DBR, who usually stays behind the scenes, was at the Rennhack demonstration to supervise a part of the machine he designed—the foam-padded decelerator wheels that instantly and safely stop a swiftly moving apple, grasping it and moving it away before the next apple arrives that might hit it.
In a process Rasch calls “singulation,” the apples are kept from touching and bruising each other as they move from the picker, through the tube and the decelerator wheel, onto the rotating fan distributor, and into the bin. An electric eye keeps the distributor just over but not touching the apples in the bin and moves it up as the bin fills.
The decelerator wheels have been redesigned to put apples into cups in the foam, instead of merely between two foam layers, Dietrich said. Rasch said the change also makes it easier to deal with the kaolin clay western growers use to control sunburn, but which eastern growers don’t much use. The clay powder was affecting the wheel’s performance, he said.
A key feature of the decelerator design is it maintains the vacuum as the apples leave the vacuum stream.
They also doubled the number of foam wheels, so that each of the four vacuum tubes has its own separate wheel, encased side by side in two housings.
A trash eliminator has been added that can take leaves and small branches out of the vacuum stream before apples reach the bin.
In the West, researchers and growers said they wanted safety harness restraints for workers on the platform and didn’t much care for the safety rail eastern growers seemed to prefer. Also, Rasch said, the westerners didn’t like the toe board that easterners use to keep track of where their feet are relative to the edge of the platform.
“The tethers work well in the tighter working spaces in western orchards,” Rasch said. “But if you have to lean and reach, you feel like you’re swinging. Eastern growers like the belly rails, and we’ll make them height adjustable so they won’t interfere with the bucket.”
For sloping ground, the eastern version will have a platform-leveling device that keeps the entire machine horizontal. Not only does that make it easier for pickers, it keeps the bin level so that it fills properly.
Another change in the machine was shifting from a trailer to a wagon platform. The two-wheel axle up front changes the turning radius and how the machine steers compared to having tandem wheels toward the rear.
The machine is not noisy. A factory-developed muffler system reduces the noise of the vacuum generator to about 75 decibels; the idling 60-horsepower Kubota M8540 Narrow tractor pulling the harvester, working at 1,400 rpms, was actually louder than the harvester.
The machine works best in 12- and 13-foot-wide rows of trees grown in fruiting walls thin enough for a worker to reach to the trellis wire in the center. The platforms do move in and out, as well as up and down, and can do 14-foot rows, Rasch said. Workers work two rows at a time, two on platforms and two walking and picking the low fruit.
The tractor was equipped with a creeper gear kit that cut its speed to about 0.5 miles per hour, still a bit too fast in heavy fruit conditions, Rasch said. But it seemed really slow during the demonstration, since the crop was light and there was no shortage of volunteer labor. A hydrostatic-drive tractor would likely be better, he said.
The tractor was driverless, controlled by small motors attached to the steering wheel, which were controlled by one of the pickers on the platform. There appeared to be no problem keeping it moving straight ahead.
A fifth worker is needed to monitor the bin as it fills, Dietrich said, and to change bins. Rasch estimates that four workers can fill a bin in six to eight minutes in good picking conditions, and it takes about a minute to swap bins.
The demonstration orchard at Rennhack’s was a third-leaf block of tall spindle trees on Bud. 9 rootstocks on a north slope. It had a light crop of large apples. Where Rasch thinks it will really shine is in taller orchards, where ladders will not be needed. Pickers won’t have to climb, hold on with one hand, reach for apples, transfer them from hand to hand, climb back down, and walk to dump a 40-pound picking bucket.
“They’ll be picking two hands, steady,” Rasch said.
Because the machine makes picking easier, it should expand the potential labor force. “We think growers will be able to tap a local labor pool of older people and women since the work is not as strenuous and fatiguing,” Rasch said.
He said there’s a safety factor as well. “Ladder injuries are a serious problem,” he said. “It takes just one bad set or a rung breaking. Growers who get rid of ladders should pay lower insurance rates.”
Rasch also observed the growers’ attitudes as they tried their hand at the machine. “They were giggling like school kids,” he said. “At every demonstration, they loved running it. They just love this thing. It is fun.”