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Trellis posts in New York are vibrated in, not pounded, using down pressure from a loader and a vibrating cam.

Trellis posts in New York are vibrated in, not pounded, using down pressure from a loader and a vibrating cam.

Growers in western New York are convinced they need to mechanize their fruit operations and improve labor efficiency if they are to flourish in the future, and they’re moving rapidly in that direction.

Like growers in other parts of the country, they are focusing on platforms that can replace ladders for tasks such as pruning, thinning, trellis construction, and harvesting. They are also adopting machines that thin blossoms or fruit, top or hedge trees, and move bins.

During the International Fruit Tree Association tour to western New York last summer, organized by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Lake Ontario Fruit program, visitors were surprised by the extent and the intensity of the New York effort. These growers’ work hasn’t received nearly the national publicity that projects in the Pacific Northwest, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have.

“A revolution for innovation in mechanization in tall spindle orchard systems is currently under way in this region,” said Mario Miranda Sazo, one of the educators.

In New York, more than 40 growers have adopted the tall spindle apple production orchard design, and a few have adopted super spindle. Both designs are not only productive, but are the kinds of systems in which mechanization can proceed, and many of the growers had that in mind when they planted them.

Leader

One of the leaders in the mechanization effort is Paul Wafler, Wolcott, New York. Besides operating a large family-owned nursery business (Wafler Nurseries) and orchards with 400 acres of bearing apples, he is recognized as a leading thinker in orchard mechanization who is capable of designing and building machines for use in his own orchards and in other orchards as well. He was one of the earliest adopters of the tall ­spindle system.

“Paul is a great leader in our industry,” Cornell University horticulturist Dr. Terence Robinson said. “He has more ideas than he knows what to do with. He wants to mechanize the tall spindle system.”

Wafler’s stable of machines includes an efficient bin shuttle, a mobile platform harvester that holds five bins and 10 to 15 pickers who pick directly into the bins, a tree topper and hedger, a pruning platform, and an over-the-top “straddle trailer” that helps workers string trellis wire, prune, and thin, and do it several tree rows as a time.

As Wafler puts it, “the next generation of trees will not be managed with ladders,” and one of his goals is “to harvest the whole farm without a ladder or a picking bag.”

Wafler began designing orchard machines on the Wafler family farm while he was still in high school 25 years ago. He’s built lots of machines since then, mostly prototypes and their evolutionary offspring, no two the same. A few years back, he auctioned off the whole collection and went on from there, so many New York growers have Wafler machines on their farms even though there is no Wafler orchard machinery company.

Right now, he said, it takes 80 to 85 pickers to handle 400 acres of fruit on the Wafler farm. “They struggle to stay ahead,” he said. He wants to cut worker numbers in half and do it in a way that allows them to harvest fruit at the optimum quality. Many of the productivity gains, he said, will come in eliminating people operating forklifts and shuttling bins.

“We’re not going to completely mechanize the fruit business,” Wafler said. “But we can build aids that make labor more efficient.”

Crews are more productive, he believes, when they work on machines that set a pace, and efficient movement of bins is a key component. He has designed a mini-clamp system that moves bins five at a time, in groups, and keeps the same five bins together through whole harvest process. Getting bins into and out of a platform harvester smoothly is the best feature of his new platform harvester, which he hopes to ­manufacture within a year or so.

New platform

On his new platform, up to 20 workers pick on both sides of the machine as it moves continuously down the rows. Platforms, instead of moving, are fixed at three levels, and the bins move from level to level.  Workers on the lower platform in front pick lower branches first, to avoid fruit damage. Bins move upward and  full bins are lowered at the rear.

This fall, Wafler is working to perfect the machine and get it ready for manufacture. There still are safety issues to address—the positioning of rails, for example, he said.

He figures that a worker using a ladder can pick 5.4 bins a day, with 3 to 3.5 hours of the day spent “commuting” up and down ladders and carrying picking sacks to bins. With a platform, he can double that output. With 15 pickers on a platform, that would be 150 bins a day. If the platform works 24 hours a day using lights at night, that would mean 300 to 400 bins per day with one machine.

His ultimate goal is a system that can harvest 500 bins per day. Maybe the harvester needs a roof to protect workers in the rain, he suggests.

Pruning in snow

One challenge he wants to address is to design a self-steering platform—not a harvester—that will maneuver through orchards in heavy snow, without having to plow paths through the orchards first. The idea would be to prune the tops first from the platforms and come through a second time with a ground crew to prune tree bottoms when the snow melts in the spring.

Wafler urged growers to use a platform for everything above normal working height. ““Never get a ladder out of the barn.”

J.D. Fowler, at Fowler Farms, uses a Wafler-built straddle trailer for pruning, thinning, trellis wire stringing, and tree training. Fowler favors a pedestrian-level orchard, so he tops the trees to keep them shorter, and uses shorter posts, lower trellis wires, and narrower alleys. The straddle trailer reaches easily over the top. Workers stand on small, basket-like platforms that are suspended from an overhead rail. One worker works one side of one row, so workers do four rows at a time.

Last summer, Cornell University researchers and extension educators Dr. Terence Robinson, Alison DeMarree, and Mario Miranda Sazo, wrote a paper covering the reasons growers want to mechanize and the advantages of using self-propelled orchard platforms. They gave credit to the growers for their bootstrap approach.

In their view, the widespread adoption of the tall spindle system has laid the groundwork for worker positioning platforms. As well as saving time and labor from not needing to use ladders, there are other potential ­advantages:

“It encourages the same pace of work for an entire work crew, which increases productivity and prevents over- or under-pruning or hand thinning that can occur when the pace down the row is not controlled,” they wrote. “Physical exertion is reduced, allowing a more diverse labor pool.”