It wasn’t a John Henry-like contest, pitting man against machine. Rather, it was two machines competing for the affections of men and women who will have better, more efficient working conditions picking apples using either of them.

They weren’t in the same orchard and were working a day apart, but conditions were otherwise about the same. It was mildly cold and raining. The two Michigan orchards, a hundred miles apart, were laden with large Jonagold apples growing in high-density, tall spindle trellis systems.

The two machines working to impress a small cohort of Michigan apple growers who turned out in the mid-October rain were the Huron Fruit Systems harvest platform and the DBR Conveyor Concepts vacuum harvester.

The Huron Fruit Systems platform was designed and built by Paul Wafler, of Pittsford, New York. This machine is proudly owned by Dave Rennhack, who said he paid $65,000 for it and another $12,500 for the five-bin hauler that supplies empty bins to the harvest platform and hauls away filled bins, five at a time. Rennhack grows fruit at Hart, Michigan, and sells much of it through his farm market. To his knowledge, he bought the first of these machines sold outside the Wafler family.

“Somebody had to be the guinea pig,” Rennhack said.

The DBR machine has worked at several Michigan orchards, but the day after the Rennhack demonstration, it was at Cherry Bay Orchards near Suttons Bay, north of Traverse City. There, Mark Miezio, a member of the Gregory family that owns Cherry Bay, seemed pleased enough.

The company that will build them, Phil Brown Welding, has decided on a price and now will sell them after five years of working on prototypes.

The price: $79,000 for the picking unit, complete with roofs and night lights and the bin hauler and changer, plus $45,000 for the Brownie Quad, the versatile platform with the 44 horsepower diesel engine that carries the harvesting unit. It also powers hydraulic or air loppers, chain saws, and other tools in other seasons.

It’s amazing, really, that after hundreds of years of workers scrambling up and down, moving and positioning ladders, two ladderless alternatives appear at the same time.

Each claims to make workers 15 to 30 percent more productive. Crews of five on the DBR were picking a bin of apples about every 10 minutes. Each machine gains its efficiencies in slightly different ways.

Huron Fruit

Huron Fruit Systems in the name chosen by Paul Wafler, who designed the system, and his brother, Walter, who will sell it. Walter said his brother had so far built about 12 machines. “No two are alike,” he said, noting that design features have rapidly evolved since the concept first appeared about five years ago. But this last version is more than a prototype.

The machine is relatively simple. Platforms at three levels along both sides of the machine hold three workers on a side, picking from one side of two rows of trees, with one worker controlling the speed and direction as the self-propelled platform creeps along, powered by a 13 horsepower Honda engine.

The first platform is one step up, and the two others are at 3.5 and 5 feet.

The idea is to have “harvest zones” with workers on the ground or the bottom step picking fruit they can easily reach up to 5 to 7 feet. Workers on the second level pick from 5 to 10 feet, and those on the top platform pick from 7 to 12.5 feet.

The location of the platforms can be adjusted to fit alley widths from 11 to 15 feet, but once fixed in position, they don’t move in or out or up or down.

The machine carries five bins in the center between the platforms. The bottom two bins sit flat and the higher three are tilted on a slanting platform. The top bins are directly behind the workers on the top platform.

Workers pick into picking sacks and dump their apples into the bins. For workers on platforms, that means merely turning around and dumping. Workers on the ground carry their sacks, step up one step, and dump into the bins.

A key feature is the way the bins change. All five filled bins slide together to the ground and five new bins load automatically from the bin hauler, which can later pick up and move the five bins together. The clamp-style trailer straddles the boxes, and retractable forks allow the bins to be hoisted off the ground for transport.

DBR system

“Both are good concepts,” said Mike Rasch, speaking charitably about the rival Wafler machine as he talks about his own. “The difference, they bring the boxes to the apples, and we bring the apples to the box.”

Workers on the DBR machine—developed by Chuck Dietrich (D), Phil Brown (B), and Mike Rasch (R)—don’t pick into sacks. They pick into funnel-shaped receptacles attached to vacuum hoses that look like drain tile but are lined with smooth, soft polystyrene.

Four hoses serve four workers, two on each side, and apples move by vacuum to a special foam-wheel decelerator, from which they drop onto an elephant ear fan that distributes them into the bin. An electric eye tells the bin when it needs to move down as the bin fills.

The design was changed a year ago from tractor-pull to self-propelled on the Brownie Quad.

Demonstration video

The better mousetrap?

Rasch believes workers will like his system better. Not only are there no ladders, there are no picking sacks and no carrying of apples. But the question of efficiency is not yet answered. “Everybody’s guessing,” Rasch said.

A key question revolved around bin handling. The DBR machine fills one bin in about 10 minutes, then stops. The bin is lowered, a new bin is moved in from the trailer behind the harvester, and the trailer moves over the bin for recovery later with a fork lift. That gives workers about a one-minute break every 10 minutes, Brown said.

The Huron machine fills five bins at once and the bins are changed out on the fly, while workers continue to pick into their picking sacks. All five bins are handled at once. There are no breaks.

The platforms on the DBR machine are not fixed in position. They slide hydraulically in and out and move up and down. In inclement weather, workers on the DBR machine are protected by panels above the platforms; Huron workers are not. The DBR machine also has a tilt feature that keeps the platforms and the bin level on hillsides.

There appears to be no difference in fruit quality between the two machines, although Brown says eliminating the picking bag and that transfer should favor the DBR. Both machines reduce bruising compared to conventional picking, he said.

Both machines have one “extra” worker who serves as inspector, sorter, and trash remover looking over the bins as they fill. Both machines require a designated driver, but they are both pickers on a platform. Both machines turn sharply enough to return without skipping a row, but the Huron machine, with crab steering, turns somewhat sharper.

Both machines can adapt to orchard conditions. At Rennhack’s, the trees were short. Workers picked almost all from the ground, and the machine moved at a good pace, with only two on platforms picking tops. Rennhack had a large crew of pickers that day, 11, and the machine had to hustle to keep pace. But the machine can serve a large crew.

At Cherry Bay, the trees were much taller. Workers had already picked from the ground all the apples they could handily reach, and the DBR workers were picking the tops above seven feet only. This procedure assures there is no machine contact with apples on the lower limbs.

“I’m satisfied we made a good decision,” Rennhack said. “I like the simplicity of the Huron machine. We bought it half to use for harvesting and half for other platform work.” While the Waflers are using several machines in their own orchards, as far as he knows he was the first to order the machine.

“There is a learning process, and we are in our first year,” he said. He found the machine tended to pace the workers, speeding up slower workers and slowing down faster ones. There are some tricks in filling the boxes evenly, getting a balance between workers on the ground and workers on the platform.

In one block with bitterpit, Rennhack used one of the five boxes for lower quality fruit, using the center box as a juice box and rigging up a 6-inch PVC pipe so workers on the platform could drop poor quality apples in it and the apples would roll to the center box.

Rennhack has 75 acres of apples now, but only a quarter of them work well with the machine. It works best on tall spindle or slender spindle trees and less well on vertical axe, he said, and he’s moving toward the tall spindle design.

At Cherry Bay

“What I really like about the DBR is getting the weight off the picker,” Mark Miezio said, meaning the worker does one thing—pick—and there is no carrying a bag of apples. “There’s no turning, no emptying the bag.”

This also contributes to a team approach to picking, he said, since higher skilled, stronger workers don’t have as much advantage. One of his crews is made up of two young workers, two elderly workers, and a small-statured woman. “Everybody was really happy,” he said.

“The men on the ground picking liked that, since they didn’t have to move ladders, and the machine guys liked it, too,” he said.

“We’re mostly cherry growers,” he added. “We long ago embraced machine harvest technology. It fits our mindset to harvest apples this way.”

Another aspect of the DBR, he said, is that the fruit is singulated. It moves one at a time through the tube. The next feasible step could be optical or laser sorting right in the orchard, Miezio says.
With both machines, they work best with fruiting walls. Walter Wafler said the design should allow pickers to reach 2.5 feet to the center of the tree. •