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Pasco grower Denny Hayden said a platform works well in high-density systems but he’s not ready to throw out his ladders yet.

Pasco grower Denny Hayden said a platform works well in high-density systems but he’s not ready to throw out his ladders yet.

Geraldine Warner

When Pasco, Washington, grower Denny Hayden bought an orchard platform five years ago, he expected it to be more useful than it’s actually been. But an Ontario grower says he’s using his all the time and plans to add lights so he can use it at night.    

The problem, Hayden says, is that most of his orchard is not configured in a way that lends itself to platform work. In his medium-density apple blocks, with trees 5 feet apart and 13 feet between rows, the canopy is too inconsistent to keep workers on the platform continually busy.

In his more recent, high-density apple plantings, where the trees are four feet apart with nine feet between rows and form a vertical plane, platform work is more efficient.

“You can put three people on a side in the high-density and keep them very busy,” Hayden said. “Platforms are very efficient with the right orchard configuration, but you really don’t gain a lot of efficiencies if your system’s wrong.”

In a Washington State University survey of apple ­growers, unsuitable tree architecture was the number-one reason given for not using platforms.

But Tom Chudleigh, an orchardist in Ontario, Canada, says a platform can be used in medium-density orchards as long as the deck that the workers stand on is long enough for them to move around.

In his experience, the deck needs to be at least six feet long for wider plantings so that if there’s a gap between trees, the worker has the latitude to move to the next tree with no downtime. On a shorter deck, the worker has to wait until the platform reaches the next tree.

Chudleigh operates 58 acres of pick-your-own apples at Milton, near Toronto. All the rows are 15 feet apart to allow his customers to pick their apples. His older blocks have trees six or seven feet apart, and in recent plantings, they are three feet apart in the row.

His platform has two decks for workers to stand on: one 4 feet long and the other 11 feet long. He now realizes that if the decks had been 6 and 8 feet long or both 7 feet long, the platform would have been more efficient.

Stools

Chudleigh had the platform custom built after going to Italy last year. There, he saw retired people sitting on stools on platforms picking apples into buckets. When the buckets were full, they would swivel on their stools and empty their buckets into a bin on the platform.

“Retired people at 70 years old could pick all day and not get tired, whereas handling ladders and 25 pounds of apples in a bag takes some stamina,” he remarked.

Chudleigh saw the potential for both expanding the labor force and reducing the cost of labor—the most significant cost in apple production—but the platforms on sale in Italy had cages around where the workers stand to prevent them from falling, and he thought the vertical cage bars would damage his trees.

The platform he had built has safety harnesses for workers that are secured to metal tubes above their heads, out of the way of the trees. The bars will also serve as mounts for a shade cloth and a rain cover he plans to install to improve conditions for his workers. “It’s miserable to work in the rain all day, especially when you’re reaching up and the rain runs down your arms,” he said.

Since it was finished in June, his four workers have used the platform for almost everything including thinning, tree training, summer pruning, and picking. Chudleigh has his workers pick fruit more than seven feet high so his customers don’t need to use ladders.

His employees—seasonal workers from Mexico who have done farm work for a long time and usually reject new things—took to the platform instantly, he said. Hand thinning suddenly became a fun job.

Trial and error

Building the platform involved a lot of trial and error and a cost of between $40,000 and $45,000. “I’ve probably got more money into it than a new one would cost,” he said. “The builder and I were a little naive about the cost. He was apologizing, and I was writing checks, and by the time it was finished, it was kind of expensive.”

One problem is that the self-correcting steering system doesn’t work when the trees are far apart, though it works well in his high-density blocks. He is replacing the ­steering system with photoelectronic sensors.
The next modification will be to add lights.

“If you have a fairly expensive machine, you, of course, want to use it as much as you can, and the option to have a second crew go through there at night is a good idea,” he explained.

He figures that one platform can cover about 40 to 45 acres of orchard. And that’s the dilemma for Hayden, who has 150 acres of apples, of which 40 are high-­density. When he’s doing a job where a platform could speed up the work, he needs more than one platform for the size of the crew, but he doesn’t believe he has enough high-­density acreage to justify buying more.

“We’ll be running 40 people for thinning, and to keep 40 people thinning on platforms, I’d really need to bulk up my platforms,” he said.

Hayden said he’s just using his platform for select jobs, such as hanging pheromone dispensers in the upper parts of the trees. Another job it works well for is blossom thinning of cherries, with the workers using hand-held string thinners. Scientists at Washington State University have developed a hand-held version of the Darwin mechanical thinner in the form of an electric drill with a head of weed-trimmer strings. He said battery-operated thinners didn’t stay charged long enough, but now he puts a generator on an all-terrain vehicle so they can be plugged in.

“We played around with it last season, and it worked great,” he said. “You can cover the orchard so much faster than by hand. We were, in the past, doing blossom ­thinning with our fingers. That’s pretty time consuming.”

Hayden believes it wasn’t a bad decision to buy the $30,000 platform. “I think we’ve got our money out of it, but I’m a little disappointed—I would have thought we would use it more. It’s not that we don’t have some efficiencies, but I’m not seeing the 30 percent that you hear of all the time. I’m not running hard numbers—it’s in discussions with our crew foreman. If we’re gaining enough, we’ll use it, and if not, we’ll park it.”