A crew of five works the harvester—four on two platforms picking McIntosh from the tops of the trees and one monitoring the apples in the bin and changing the bin when it is full. Empty bins are on the trailer (from which this photo was shot). Photo by Richard Lehnert
The vacuum-based apple harvester from DBR Conveyor Concepts is getting a powerful field test this fall. It will be used to harvest about 70 acres of apples, of several varieties, on Riveridge Land near Sparta, Michigan.
Riveridge Land is part of an integrated business headed by co-owner Don Armock that includes River-idge Packing and Riveridge Produce -Marketing.
“We’ll be able to monitor the fruit from the orchard through the packing house and see how our buyers respond to it,” Armock said.
In fact, he invited buyers to come to his orchard and see the machine operating.
Mike Rasch, one of the machine’s designers and the R in DBR, said this will be a real test of the harvester. “We’ll be able to track the apples through storage and see how they pack out and grade,” he said.
The machine looks somewhat -different this year.
Mirror-like metal canopies have been installed over the platforms where the pickers stand while picking, offering some protection from sun or rain and also providing a reflecting surface for the LED lights that have been installed for nighttime operation.
“We can actually do a better job of spot picking with the LED lights at night,” Rasch said. In the harsh light of day, apples on the shaded side looker darker than apples in the direct sun, but the artificial light tends to even it out, he said.
The vacuum tubes on the machine are shorter. The machine in the Riveridge orchards is picking tops only. “The machine is very efficient in this use,” Rasch said.
The strategy is for workers on the ground to pick all the apples they can easily reach. “It’s hard for our machine to improve their efficiency,” Rasch said. “You can’t get much better than that.”
These apples are picked into ordinary picking sacks and placed directly into bins, and the bins are hauled from the orchard before the machine comes in.
“We clean the tops,” Rasch said. “We completely take ladders out of the orchard. And the workers can pick both sides of the tree at the top, so we pick two rows at a time and need to go only down alternate rows.”
Without ladders, crews can pick two to three more bins a day, he said, boosting their daily production to about 15 bins for two pickers. “Quality suffers when workers are on -ladders,” he added.
Justin Finkler, the operations manager at Riveridge Land, said they ran a test in which two workers picking from the ground only were able to pick up to 15 bins a day, which those working from the ground and with ladders typically did eight to ten. “Without ladders, workers can probably pick two to three more bins each a day,” he said, and had plans to test that.
Good Fruit Grower watched the harvester, in both day and nighttime action, picking high-density Lindamac McIntosh in their fourth leaf on Malling 9 rootstocks in 11-foot rows. The machine fit well between rows.
The workers on the platforms were removing apples from about eight feet of tree height, from six feet to the top. The workers easily moved the platform up and down so they could pick the apples at a convenient chest height. Two workers on each platform worked in rhythm and there was no conflict about what height the platform should be at.
The machine was being pulled by a tractor controlled by one of the workers on the platform.
Phil Brown, the B in DBR and the builder of the machine, said plans were being made to mount the harvester on the hydrostatic work platform his company, Phil Brown Welding, now sells quite successfully. Removing the tractor and hitch will cut 20 feet off the overall length and give it a shorter turning radius at the row ends. It will also be joystick controlled. The harvester unit will not be permanently fixed on the platform, so the platform can be used for pruning, thinning, and other work in other seasons.
Finkler said the company already has two Phil Brown platforms used for other-than-harvest work. The operation includes 700 acres of fruit, mostly apples but some sweet cherries.
Some other changes were made this year in the chamber containing the apple decelerator, Rasch said, making it smoother and wider using ultra-high-molecular-weight plastic. The material is super slippery and highly resistant to wear. The drive on the decelerator wheels and the pinwheel fan distributer filling the bin has been separated into two drives so the speed of each can be controlled independently.
Changes made more than a year ago have tamed the sound of the vacuum generator, making it quiet enough so workers can talk to each other without raising their voices. One worker on the ground, monitoring apple quality as the bin fills and changing the bin when it is full, can talk to workers on the platform without shouting.
The trailer behind the harvester handles eight bins, stacked four long and two deep, on a deck about five feet high. When a bin is full, the decelerator and apple distributor is raised and the full bin lowered to the ground. The machine moves ahead about six feet, and a new bin is lowered down and positioned in the fill location by hand. The filled bin stays in place while the trailer moves over it.
It takes about a minute to change bins, Brown said. Pickers do not pick during that time since there is no place to put the apples other than into the picking “sack” attached to the vacuum hoses.
Rasch said the crews at Riveridge work for 11½ hours on the machine, taking a half hour off for lunch. A night crew could keep the machine at work 23 hours a day.
“I really want to see what the worker response is,” he said. “In the Riveridge use this year, we’ll see what a crew can do as it gains experience with the machine. So far, they don’t seem overworked by it. The crew yesterday wanted to stay on to do the night shift as well.”
That was the first test of night work.
Fruit quality has been excellent, Rasch said, even working in the early thin-skinned varieties like Blondee and McIntosh. Most of the bruising is finger marks, just as sometimes occurs with hand picking. •
After growing up on a Michigan dairy farm, Richard Lehnert began writing about farming in 1962, while still a junior studying journalism at Michigan State University. He worked at newspapers for a year before joining the staff of Michigan Farmer, where he spent 26 years, the last 15 as chief editor. He was a member of the staff of Good Fruit Grower from 2010 until 2015.
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