A four-person picking crew can have two on the ground or all four on the platform, but each pick into their own tube.
An apple harvest prototype machine that’s part of a national research effort to automate specialty crop production was put to test in Pacific Northwest orchards during the 2011 harvest. The vacuum system apple harvester, designed by Michigan’s DBR Conveyor Concepts, has been tested in eastern U.S. orchards, but its arrival in Washington State at the end of September marked the start of machine’s first trials in large-scale West Coast orchards.
The machine is a combination of machinery fabrication know-how and farmer ingenuity. Phil Brown of Phil Brown Welding in Conklin, Michigan, came up with the original concept. Michigan fruit growers Mike Rasch and Chuck Dietrich joined with Brown to commercialize the harvester under the name DBR Conveyor Concepts.
Both Brown and Rasch demonstrated the harvester in a Washington research orchard during a late-September technology field day sponsored by Washington State University. After the field demonstration, WSU Extension specialist Karen Lewis took charge of the machine, testing it in a variety of Washington orchards.
The harvester is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission is also funding the harvester project. Lewis is evaluating the machine for fruit quality and bruising, along with other attributes, like picker efficiencies. Bruising that could occur from harvesting machines has been a concern of growers. She also hopes to test the machine under nighttime harvest conditions.
A different style apple harvester, developed by Picker Technologies, is under evaluation by the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.
After testing in Pennsylvania and Michigan orchards last year, the DBR apple harvester underwent several changes to make it more farmer friendly, Brown said during the field day demonstration. The Washington unit is pulled by a tractor, to save the expense of a self-propelled machine, and runs off the tractor’s PTO hydraulics. The four-worker platform can be adjusted to fit 9- to 14-foot-wide row spacings. Units developed for Michigan have a wider platform reach to accommodate the industry’s wider row spacings of up to 18 feet.
Control levers enable workers to widen or narrow their platform to best reach the fruit. Apples picked are placed in a hose lined with quarter-inch neoprene foam and moved by vacuum to the dry-system decelerator. The patented decelerator is a large wheel with foam wedges that controls and extracts the apples out of the vacuum environment, Rasch said. The maximum apple diameter that can be accommodated by the machine is 4.5 inches.
Apples are gently distributed in the bin by large neoprene foam flaps dubbed “elephant ears” by Penn State researchers, Rasch said. An electric eye moves the bin filler up and down.
Four empty bins on a trailer follow the harvester. Filled bins are discharged onto the ground, with a fresh, empty bin put in its place.
Though special skill isn’t needed to pick and place the apples in the hose inlet, timing of apple placement in the tubes is important, Rasch said. “The singulation