A century ago, Ford Motor Company adopted the assembly line and began cranking out Model T cars that were as alike as peas in a pod and affordable by just about every family in America.
While Henry Ford is often credited with inventing the assembly line, it was really Eli Whitney (of cotton gin fame) who, a hundred years earlier, began assembling muskets in linear fashion using interchangeable parts. Before that, each musket was handcrafted, unique, and expensive to buy or to repair.
So what has happened in fruit production over that span of time?
The black and white photographs of pruning or apple harvests taken a century ago by Kodak Brownie cameras look a lot like those taken today with digital color Nikons and Canon cameras. Trees are smaller, but people are on ladders with pruning shears and picking bags today, just as they were a century ago.
But more and more, growers are moving toward an assembly-line future for fruit production. They are being nudged along by advisors who tell them to prepare for a mechanized future that is, in fact, already in evidence in many orchards.
Dr. Jim Schupp, a pomologist at Penn State University’s Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, Pennsylvania, spoke at Michigan’s horticulture show last winter showing how mechanization is taking hold in Pennsylvania orchards.
Mario Miranda Sazo, with Cornell University’s Lake Ontario fruit program, also spoke in Michigan about the benefits of simple rules and relatively simple machines for fruit growing. Cornell also hosted a summit on precision management in mid-March in Geneva, New York.
“How beautiful it is to be a fruit grower,” Sazo said. “Orcharding will remain something you do outdoors expecting to make a profit without working under a roof.”
But in many ways, orcharding will follow the pattern of other industries in which processes are broken into pieces and simplified and scientific rules replace artisanal skills.
Pruning is an example. When trees are complex, they are hard to prune. “When workers are faced with a superabundance of pruning cut alternatives, they are afraid of making the wrong choice,” Sazo said. “As a result, they delay the pruning cut decision, default to the safest obvious cut, or avoid choosing altogether. Your pruning crew ends up being less efficient, and you end up growing wood, not fruit.”
The tall spindle system Cornell has developed takes the guesswork out of pruning, he said. There are simple pruning rules:
—Limit the tree to 11 feet tall by cutting the leader to a side branch.
—Take out two or three of the largest limbs each year.
—Cut large limbs back to a stub an inch or so long to encourage a bud to grow from the base and grow a new branch in the same location.
In tree training systems, Cornell is advocating a three–wire trellis if there is a vertical supporting element such as a conduit pipe, a bamboo stick, or a wire stabilizer, and a four- or five-wire trellis support if no vertical support element is used. Not only can the trellis wires be strung easily, the stabilizer wires and the tie wires are all a standard size. They install easily and fast, with workers doing specialized jobs. One worker puts in the stabilizer wire, while a second clips branches to the bottom wire and the stabilizer wire. As the tree grows tall enough to reach the top wire, it will be fastened in a speedy operation in which one worker makes the same simple tie over and over. A tool for twisting the tie wires makes it faster still.
Both Sazo and Schupp see big roles in the future for workers to use orchard platforms for installing trellis wire, tying branches, pruning trees, installing mating disruption dispensers, and monitoring traps. Ultimately, platforms will also carry harvest-assist tools that allow workers to pick without climbing ladders.
Schupp is pleased about a fortunate match—the systems that growers need to use labor more efficiently also produce the best fruit. In his studies with peaches, he found platforms reduced the time spent hand thinning tall trees to the same as would be spent thinning shorter, open vase style trees from the ground.
In his studies, peaches grown on the V system—with two, four, or even six 14-foot tall stems—were much more productive than open vase trees and generated twice the income.
These upright trees are taller (13 to 14 feet), have more bearing surface, better light interception, more natural growth (since peach trees want to grow up, not out), produce less “retaliatory” growth when pruned, and don’t shade the fruit.
“Growers pay a huge price to stay on the ground,” Schupp said. “A ladder doubles the cost of hand thinning,” which is why platforms are needed. Narrow walls of trees work best with platforms, and they produce the best fruit because of the light.
He encourages apple and peach growers to plant and design their orchard for a future with machines—essentially, tall, thin walls of fruit trees with alleys the right width for the machines.
Another machine with a place in the orchard, in Schupp’s view, is the string blossom thinner. The Darwin machine is being rapidly adopted by peach growers, who find knocking off all those blossoms saves hundreds of dollars per acre in hand thinning costs and pays off with larger fruit size because it is done early. No energy is wasted growing green fruit that will later be thinned off.
He’s tested the Darwin in apples, but damage to leaves and spurs needs to be reduced if it is to work there, he said.
In New York, Sazo said, a few innovative growers are also using hedgers on apple trees to establish the width of each row and set the dimension for follow-up pruning.
Cornell scientists are working closely with growers and machinery designers in New York, who are creating and using platforms, hedgers, and are working on a harvesting system.