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Every orchard platform that J.J. Dagorret manufactures comes with a built-in stereo. Of course, that’s not the most critical feature, but it speaks to Dagorret’s objective, which is to help growers keep their workers happy, safe, and productive.

Dagorret, owner of Automated Ag Systems, has 20 years of experience in building harvesting equipment for various crops. He grew up in California and after leaving school joined his father, John, in custom harvesting of fruit and vegetable crops. Dagorret, who had some experience in welding, would make modifications to the harvesting machines, and then started building complete machines. “I seemed to have a knack for it,” he said.

In addition to harvesting machines, he developed a machine called the Bin -Bandit for transporting multiple fruit bins, and had customers in Washington State.

J.J. Dagorret, maker of the Bandit Xpress, checks on a platform in use at an orchard in Othello, Washington.  Photo by Geraldine Warner

J.J. Dagorret, maker of the Bandit Xpress, checks on a platform in use at an orchard in Othello, Washington. Photo by Geraldine Warner

After a few years, he had the opportunity to move to Tampa, Florida, to do custom harvesting of oranges. There, he built machines for harvesting onions, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, and other vegetables, but growers had little interest in mechanization because of plentiful labor.

When he tried to sell his Bin Bandit to the New York apple industry, growers told him it was too wide for their modern plantings. Whereas Washington growers were using a tractor to haul bins from between the rows to a staging area to be hauled away by the Bin Bandit, New York growers said they wanted a Bin Bandit narrow enough to go down the alleys to pick up bins.

“So, we decided we would go back and build a machine that was narrow enough to go in the tree rows,” he said. That led to the idea of building narrow platforms to carry workers through the orchard for pruning, thinning, and harvesting.

The thought of working with the apple industry and its progressive growers was appealing, plus there were some things about Florida that Dagorret disliked: The congestion, the weather, the reptiles, and “everything that lands on you and bites.”

So, two years ago he moved to Moses Lake, Washington—where people, traffic, rain, and biting bugs are scarce—and established a shop for manufacturing orchard platforms.

Keep it simple

After studying of how apples are harvested and thinking through every detail, he built a prototype for testing. He kept the design simple and used readily available components to make it affordable, effective, and reliable. This year, he unveiled his commercial model, the Bandit Xpress.

“The key was keeping it very simple so if there’s an issue it can be fixed quickly and inexpensively and you don’t have to have a NASA scientist fly in to fix it,” he said. “It has to be simple, simple, simple, simple. Mother Nature just doesn’t wait on broken-down equipment. It just has to run.”

When workers use a platform instead of a ladder, they are safer, less fatigued, and able to pick more fruit per shift, he says. Because the work is less physically demanding and requires no experience, the potential labor pool is greater.

How it works

At harvest, bins are deposited throughout the orchard in the usual manner. The platform is 84 inches wide and 22 feet long and is ideal for vertical plantings with ten feet between rows, though it has side extensions for rows as far apart as 16 feet.

Two pickers work on each side of the platform while another two pickers work on the ground in front, picking apples from the lower six feet of the canopy and emptying them into a bin on the ground.

The two workers on the front end of the platform pick fruit from the middle of the canopy, and the two at the rear pick from the tops of the trees. As the machine travels down the row, it picks up bins from the orchard floor, raises them on a scissor lift to the platform, where the workers can empty their picking bags. When the bin is full, it is lowered to the orchard floor behind the machine.

The self-propelled, autosteer platform operates on a 24-horsepower Honda gas engine—the type used on zero-turn lawn mowers—and consumes about four gallons of gasoline per day. It has a 13-gallon capacity gas tank, which is set discreetly into the frame of the platform, as is the hydraulic system that powers the pruners and string thinner that Dagorret has developed. The platform has lights so it can be used at night.

It has three wheels—two at the back and one at the front left.  Seventy-five percent of the platform’s weight is born by the back axle. If the platform had four wheels, it would need an oscillating axle at the front to link the two wheels, Dagorret explains, and that would interfere with the part of the machine that picks up the bins.

It has a crawl speed of up to 2.5 miles per hour and a top ground speed of 6 m.p.h. Because the front of the machine is much lighter than the back, the platform can easily be towed from one orchard to another. The back wheels have unlocking hubs and the front of the platform can be hitched to a pickup truck for towing to its next destination at highway speed.

Dagorret said he always has a machine on standby. Should a machine break down in an orchard, instead of sending out a mechanic to fix it, he can hitch the spare machine to his pickup and drop it off so picking can resume without delay. The broken-down machine would be towed back to the shop for repair. This minimizes down time and lost revenue both for the orchard owner and the pickers.

 Fair shot

Washington Fruit and Produce Company has a Bandit Xpress at a 300-acre orchard on a V-trellis system near Othello, Washington. Dan Plath, the company’s orchard manager, said the six people working with the platform are just a small fraction of the total harvest workforce, so it’s important to place the machines where the orchard supervisors are really interested in them, take ownership, and give them a fair shot.

Washington Fruit has been using other platforms for tree training, pruning, and thinning. Platforms can greatly improve pruning efficiency because pruning can be done over a long season with a small crew, Plath said.  “Some seasons we can prune one orchard with one machine. We keep it going from the first of November to the first of April.

“If we can gain harvest efficiency by using this one for picking, too, we’ll probably do more of this,” he added. “Because it’s new to us for picking, I don’t think we’ve maximized efficiency of picking yet.”  •