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Rows of hedged apples trees at Rod Farrow's Lamont Fruit Farm in Waterport, New York in 2016. <b>(TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower file photo)</b>

Rows of hedged apples trees at Rod Farrow’s Lamont Fruit Farm in Waterport, New York, in 2016. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower file photo)

Start getting your orchard robot-ready now: Mechanical harvesters will be used commercially in your neighborhood within five years.

“The orchard you plant today is going to be the one that needs to be robot-ready; that’s five years out,” said Rod Farrow to a packed crowd at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association annual meeting in December.

That was one of the most oft repeated bits of advice from Farrow and three fellow panelists discussing “game changers,” innovations likely to drastically impact the fruit industry. The presentation was one of the better attended at the Wenatchee, Washington, conference, with more audience members than chairs.

The other panelists were West Mathison, CEO of Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee; Sam Godwin, an independent grower in Tonasket, Washington; and Dan Plath, orchard manager and owning partner of Washington Fruit and Produce in Yakima, Washington.

Farrow, a partner in Lamont Farms in Albion, New York, considers a robot-ready orchard one with canopies less than 3 feet — ideally 2 feet — wide with flat fruiting walls that can accommodate automatic pickers, self-driving platforms, automated computer-integrated apple counters and other forms of mechanization.

He also envisions future orchards with between 8,000 to 10,000 leaders per acre, producing fruit at a breakneck volume of 170 to 200 bins per acre.

He advises growers to start thinking right away to plant enough robot-ready orchard land to make the investment worth it. Robots are coming faster than anyone would have guessed just 18 months ago.

“All of a sudden robotics went from ‘Yeah, not in my lifetime,’ to ‘Holy cow this is coming’,” he said.

Godwin, a relatively small, independent grower like Farrow, echoed the sense of urgency.

“It’s never too soon to start for small growers,” he said.

Godwin has invested in tall trellis poles well before he plants to be ready to install shade cloth when he wants. He also has purchased small, 15 to 20 acre farms, near Tonasket to expand to create a critical mass to justify the expense of operation.

For example, he and Farrow agreed on needing roughly 25 to 30 acres to make a platform worth the cost, more for a robotic picker.

Mathison also expected canopies to get narrower for robotic pickers and assumed they would start by picking 80 percent of the fruit automatically, leaving 20 percent for hand pickers. That’s not perfect, but the breakdown would improve over time, he said.

Besides, the industry needs something besides people, he said. Of the 1.35 million specialty crop employees in the country, 880,000, or 65 percent, work fewer than 150 days a year, according to the 2012 Ag Census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He also expects Initiative 1433, Washington’s new minimum wage initiative passed in November, to boost the cost of labor by 16 percent to 20 percent in addition to cost-of-living increases. California and New York also have new minimum wage increases going into effect.

“We’re going to have to find a way to harvest fruits and vegetables other than the current way we’re doing it,” Mathison said.

The panelists also riffed on advice and prognostications about everything from family-work balance, banking and planning.

Farrow particularly emphasized planning — one of his favorite topics — urging growers to resist the temptation to stay so busy they don’t consider long-term ideas. Hire chores out if need be, he said. For instance, spend $10,000 to pay someone $20 per hour to spray for 500 hours per year, leaving enough time to devise ways to double that in increased revenue.

“If you can’t figure out how to make $20,000 dollars in your business with 500 extra hours to spare, maybe you should be considering whether you’re in the right business,” he said.

Planning requires knowledge. Most of the panelists suggested growers attend as many workshops as possible. Mathison even urged growers to visit the research and development workers at packing houses, something a few of his growers do at his Wenatchee campus.

Plath urged growers to look beyond saving money, pointing to studies that showed more financial gain in a Gala orchard from improvements than from an equal amount of expense cuts.

He called mechanization a way to attract workers, not just a cost-saving measure. For example, while platforms have improved efficiency by 10 percent to 50 percent at his orchards, employees get excited to work in an orchard without ladders, he said.

Technology is more than expensive tools, too, he said.

Growers should study up on the availability of rootstocks from tissue cultures, thinning using pollen tube models, stretching reflective ground cover to maximize light exposure and switching to new varieties that will be popular for the next 15 years.

Quoting the late Sunnyside, Washington, orchardist Jerry Haak, Plath said, “The cheapest way to do something is the right way the first time.” •

– by Ross Courtney