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This earlier prototype was photographed in August 2010, during an International Fruit Tree Association tour to Wafler Nursery. The new machine has a more finished look. Patent issues have limited picture availability.

This earlier prototype was photographed in August 2010, during an International Fruit Tree Association tour to Wafler Nursery. The new machine has a more finished look. Patent issues have limited picture availability.

Richard Lehnert

The owner of Wafler Nursery in Wolcott, New York, is working with Cornell ­University to perfect an apple harvesting system that will help pickers be more efficient.

Paul Wafler, a nurseryman who also designs and invents orchard machines, is working with the university on an idea to keep workers picking with both hands, with virtually no downtime. They don’t need to set ladders or climb them or hold on to them as they pick. They don’t need to carry apples and walk to bins.

With the Wafler-Cornell machine, workers do wear traditional picking bags that hang in front of them from the traditional harness. And they do need to dump the bags, but they need to move less than a step to do that. They work on a uniquely designed, self-propelled, multilevel platform.

Wafler described the Wafler-Cornell system to more than 200 growers during the Precision Management Summit in Geneva, New York, in March. Cornell University’s intellectual property unit is working through the process of patenting the system.

Wafler has been working on this harvesting system for several years. In August 2010, he showed visitors his then-prototype during an International Fruit Tree Association tour that included both a long look as his family’s nursery and a demonstration of equipment Wafler is working on. Not only was he developing the harvester, he was working on platforms and hedgers as well.

“I’ve built nine prototypes,” he said of his latest ­harvester, “and this is the one I like.”

Bin handling

To Wafler, and to Cornell University horticulturist Dr. Terence Robinson, the road to improving harvest efficiency must address bin handling and filling.

Looking at other machines, like the Munckhof Pluk-O-Trak mechanical conveyor system and the DBR and Oxbow vacuum conveyor systems, they see bottlenecks at the bin filler and the bin changing system. It is not efficient to have to position, fill, and unload one bin at a time, stopping to make the bin change, they say.

In this system, eight workers on platforms fill five bins at a time, and the five bins move and stay together. They are offloaded and five bins reloaded in less time than it takes a worker to fill a picking sack. Thus picking is continuous, and the bins change as the machine moves.

Bins are on a trailer (not scattered about the orchard) and come in at the front of the machine and go off at the rear. Wafler has developed a bin hauler that brings in five new bins and picks up all five filled bins at one time and hauls them out of the orchard.

As Cornell horticulturist Dr. Terence Robinson sees it, machine harvest was on its way into the apple industry already in the 1970s, when shakers came in to harvest stone fruits.

Then, by government edict, USDA support for all work on mechanical harvest was stopped and attention refocused on hand labor and the working conditions of pickers. Not only did USDA harvester research stop, grants to university agricultural engineering departments working on machine harvest stopped as well.

Meanwhile, however, work did continue in Europe, and orchard designs were being changed in ways that make trees more amenable to thinning and pruning using platforms, and potentially harvest as well.

The Munckhof company has, for several years, been marketing a machine in which pickers, some walking and some riding on platforms, pick apples into mechanical conveyors, and packers can fill boxes as they ride, or the apples go through a bin filler into a bin.

Change of focus

In the United States, after finding that shakers could not deliver enough unbruised apples to be workable, and that robots couldn’t be trained to find, pick, and bag fruit fast enough to be economical, the idea shifted back to finding ways to use the human eye, hand, and brain to pick and have machines help them do the job faster and easier, Robinson said.

In the new design, the five bins sit on a sloping self-propelled platform that moves down the alley between two rows of apple trees. Four workers are positioned on platforms at different levels on either side of the bins.

Each picks in his or her own zone. Some are positioned to pick apples from the tops of trees, others from the middle, another from the lower branches. Nobody walks.

Because the bins sit on a sloping surface, each worker is able to stand directly beside a bin, no matter what level he or she is on. The bins are tilted slightly, an advantage, Wafler said. Each picker dumps his or her sack into the vee at the bottom of each bin, so apples don’t rattle around on the bottom of the bins.

The machine itself is self-propelled, runs on low horsepower, is high torque, consumes little fuel, and is quiet. The speed of the hydrostatic unit can be matched to crop size and picking conditions, and can also be set to move for a time, then stop for a few seconds.

In trials, workers have picked 6 to 6.2 bins per day per worker, Wafler said.

“This is the real deal,” Wafler assured growers. “It is not a toy. We have used this for three years, and it is no longer in the research phase.” It could come to the market within a year, he said.

Capacity

Wafler figures that growers have 48 days a year in which to get their apple crop picked, and they have to make use of all those days. This machine can harvest 80 bins in a long day. He’s looking to equip the machine with a double canopy for use during rain, so workers can pick under cover, and install radiant heaters for cold conditions. LED lights make night work feasible.

“If need be, they can work in chest-high waders to keep warm and dry,” he said.

As is the case with other harvesters, one goal is to make picking work less fatiguing and less strenuous, something that can be done by ordinary people. “We hope to be able to entice more local workers,” Wafler said.

Cost

Robinson thinks the cost of the Cornell-Wafler machine will be about $30,000, much less than the $100,000 or so he estimates the DBR or Pluk-O-Trak will cost or the $60,000 it costs to buy Blosi or Orsi platforms from which workers pick tree tops only.

“The cost of the machine with a 10-year depreciation would give an annual cost of 10 percent of its purchase price,” Robinson said. He figures the Wafler-Cornell machine could harvest 77 acres per year, at a yield of 50 bins per acre, which pegs the machine cost per bin at 80 cents. That’s figuring a per-year machine cost of $3,000 harvesting 3,850 bins per year. These are preliminary figures, Robinson said, and need to be determined more rigorously.

He also believes the machine will improve worker efficiency by 40 percent, which is more than the improvement brought by the other systems.

“The best canopies for harvesting with picking aid machines are narrow, thin canopies that allow all or most of the fruit to be picked from one side,” Robinson said. “To improve efficiency, new orchards should be planted with many rows of the same variety and using crab apple pollinizers.”

While several concepts are being developed, Robinson said, “we expect that over the next five years many growers will begin to use one of the various harvest assist machines. Gains in labor efficiency will likely be in the 20 to 50 percent range.”