In less than two years, Northstar Attachments, LLC, has manufactured ten orchard platforms for Pacific Northwest growers, each with different specifications.
"No two have been the same," said Ted Bellamy of Rankin Equipment Company in Yakima, Washington. Rankin owns Northstar, a Yakima manufacturer specializing in tractor attachments. "There are so many variables in orchards-row width, tree spacing, tree height and depth."
John Riel of Burrows Equipment, Yakima, is the dealer for the Northstar platforms. He noted that it’s difficult to have units ready for sale because they keep selling different versions of the platforms, custom-built for each grower. The platforms vary by width and height, though each is adjustable. Because each unit has been custom-made, it takes about four weeks after ordering before a unit is ready for delivery.
Growers work off a base unit of the platform that has been designed, but can add extensions to get to the desired row spacing, said Mike Yearout, vice president of sales at Rankin. With two decks, an upper and lower deck, workers can move through the orchard at the same time at two different levels or planes. The upper deck has a maximum length of ten feet, while the lower deck is no longer than six feet.
Platform width varies from 71 inches to 110 inches, with extensions or wings available to bring workers closer to the trees. Platform height varies from 22 inches off the ground to a maximum of 72 inches from the ground. Units can be designed with a lower and upper deck, accommodating up to eight workers. Platform side rails can be angled, covered with plastic to be solid, or straight.
By keeping the units simple in design, without hydraulics and self-propelled automation, and with utility in mind, the units are relatively inexpensive, noted Riel. Growers are able to use the platforms to do a variety of tasks, from dormant and summer pruning, thinning, and pheromone hanging to tree training.
Several orchardists using the platforms have commented to Riel that they are able to prune and train and tie trees in the same pass, resulting in significant labor savings.
The average price for an orchard platform is around $6,000.
Bellamy, who worked closely with two growers in developing today’s platform, said that the concept is not new. "I know growers who made their own platforms years ago. Fifteen years ago, we made a platform for a bin trailer, but we couldn’t get anyone interested in it."
But the economics of fruit production have changed significantly in recent years, with grower returns declining and production costs increasing, particularly in the area of labor. Due to voter initiatives in both Oregon and Washington, minimum wage rates are now significantly higher than the federal minimum wage, and because they are linked to the consumer price index, the rates rise each year.
The potential for labor shortages in the agricultural industry also worries growers.
In the future, Northstar will offer orchard platforms that are self-propelled. Those units are currently in the planning stage.