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Harvesting aid in action at Oregon Heritage Farms.

Harvesting aid in action at Oregon Heritage Farms.

Fed up with labor issues, Oregon orchardist Robert McLennan, owner of Oregon Heritage Farms near Hillsboro, began searching in 2007 for a mechanical alternative to help harvest his 140 acres of apples.

When he saw a story on the Zucal Apple System mechanical harvesting aids in Good Fruit Grower, it wasn’t long before he placed a call to northern Italy, where the machines are made.

Soon after that, he and his wife, Kim, were on a plane to the tiny town of Romeno, where they toured the factory and ended up buying three of the machines.

The three harvesters, one of which is designed to work on hills up to an 8 percent grade, arrived in midharvest in September, along with two factory representatives who set the harvesters up and showed McLennan’s crews how to operate them.

"We did a day or two of training, and off we went," McLennan said.

After a brief period of getting used to the machines, the crews were off and running, and it didn’t take long for McLennan to discover that he had made a good decision. "For us, they’ve worked real well. We’re very happy with them."

Advantages

Even though the harvesting aids didn’t work a full season, and McLennan’s crop was much lighter this year due to unseasonable rains, he readily saw that the machines offered several advantages in his high-density Jonagolds and Honeycrisps. One was a dramatic increase in harvesting efficiency.

"In the Honeycrisps, with just six guys on just one machine, we were getting around 50 bins a day. And for us, that was about three times the amount for those –people if they were picking."

With the aid of the harvester, work crews pick in one of three planes: high, middle, and low, with the ground crew picking the low fruit a few feet in front of the lead conveyor belt. McLennan said that it took a while for crews to learn to stay in their plane.

The bin being filled by the six conveyor belts is –constantly spinning to distribute fruit evenly.

Another advantage, somewhat seren–dipitous, is that the harvesters were very gentle on the apples.

"Honeycrisp are a very temperamental fruit and bruise real easy," McLennan said. "When we ran them, bruising was minimal, and we were picking in some of the worst conditions. It rained and rained, and we couldn’t stop. The fruit was ready to go."

Another selling point of the harvesting aids is that they allow McLennan to better synchronize his harvests with packing shed activities. "What I’m trying to do is get the two to work together, so everything is moving in and out of the shed as fresh as possible."

Because the machines work so fast compared to hand picking, they allow McLennan to pick much more of his fruit at the peak of ripeness.

Better supervision

Yet another feature of the harvesting aids that McLennan likes is that they give crew supervisors better control over workers and the quality of the harvest. Crew supervisors, who also pick, are perched on one of the uppermost platforms where they can not only observe the workers but can easily see the fruit they’ve just picked traveling along the conveyors.

Such an immediate inspection of the apples is not possible during hand—picking operations. What’s more, during hand picking, it’s not uncommon for slackers to wander off on their own and take unwarranted breaks. "The crews stay together," McLennan said.

Because the harvester’s speed can be adjusted, it can speed up in thin areas and slow down in more bountiful rows.

In its Oregon debut, the harvesters worked at peak efficiency with no downtime, McLennan said. "In the 30 to 35 days we ran it seven days a week, we had –minimal problems."

McLennan uses a Smart Hort barcode system on every tote to identify each team, the variety, when the tote was picked, which block it came from. The codes are inserted into the side of the bin in the field. The machines will come to McLennan’s aid again during pruning in December and thinning later on. "We can take the harvester part off and send the platform out by itself."

He’s hoping that the labor savings will offset the cost of the machines in five years.