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Critical components of the DBR harvester are the vacuum tubes (green ones carry apples), the decelerator wheels (circular steel), and the elephant-ear fruit distributor (fan-like device above apples). Here, a full bin is being lowered to the ground during a demonstration at Mike Rasch’s orchard in August.

Critical components of the DBR harvester are the vacuum tubes (green ones carry apples), the decelerator wheels (circular steel), and the elephant-ear fruit distributor (fan-like device above apples). Here, a full bin is being lowered to the ground during a demonstration at Mike Rasch’s orchard in August.

The vacuum system apple harvester invented at Phil Brown Welding in Conklin, Michigan, was tested this fall in the orchards at the Pennsylvania State Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, Pennsylvania—and passed with ­flying colors.

“It was amazing how beautiful the fruit looked after coming through the vacuum tubes,” said Dr. Tara Baugher, extension educator in Adams County.

Penn State horticulturist Jim Schupp said the machine did “very, very, very well.”

About 70 growers came to the center to see a demonstration on October 20—an excellent turnout considering apple harvest had not yet ended.

The primary focus of the tests at the research center this year was bruising, and some of the tests were conducted on some easily bruised apples—overmature Golden Delicious after three days of rain.

“We needed to focus on bruising,” Schupp said. “I needed to be able to tell growers with confidence, ‘this machine will not mess up your crop.’”

Some of the other data, while collected, did not do justice to the machine, he said. A combination of speed of harvest (labor use) and quality of fruit (packout) shows a gain of $245 an acre by using the machine.

“The trial wasn’t fair to the machine,” Schupp said.

For a comparison, hand pickers harvested Golden Delicious growing on Bud.9, very small trees with minimal ladder setting needed, and the trial was small—so there were no worker fatigue issues. “We’re looking forward to doing commercial-size trials, with larger blocks,” Schupp said.

This vacuum harvester will be commercialized under the name DBR Conveyor Concepts. DBR stands for Dietrich-Brown-Rasch—Chuck Dietrich, Phil Brown, and Mike Rasch, the three men who developed it.

Part of the bruising test was done using the Impact Recording Device marketed by Techmark and once called an instrumented sphere. An apple-shaped ball filled with instruments records the knocks and bruises that occur as a fruit moves through a harvest or packing system.

Mike Rasch and Phil Brown traveled to Washington State in late October to meet with Washington State University’s Karen Lewis and Jim McFerson and arrange for further testing of their machine in Washington next fall. Penn State and Washington State are partners, with others, in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project called Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops.

Key components

The DBR machine contains several key components. One is the vacuum system that carries apples from a funnel-shaped receiver (into which pickers put the fruit) through neoprene-lined tubes to the bin. The next step is a decelerator, a foam wheel that stops the apples, removes them from the tube without losing the vacuum, and transfers them to the bin.

The next key element is the “elephant ear,” the fan-shaped apple distributor that takes apples and spreads them gently and evenly across the bin.

Pickers ride on a self-propelled, adjustable platform. A bin hauler holds five empty bins. A worker on the ground shifts a new bin into place as a bin is filled, and that filled bin is lowered to the ground. The bin hauler moves over it. The ground worker also oversees the bin filling, sorting out cull apples and doing other chores, Schupp said.