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Nov 6, 2012
Apple harvesting platform readies for production

The mechanized apple harvesting platform created by Phil Brown, Mike Rasch and Chuck Dietrich under the company named DBR Conveyor Concepts is almost ready for full production and should be available in 2013, Dietrich said.

The core concept of the machine is to eliminate extra labor from the harvesting process. As the machine moves, workers on the row or nearby pick apples and place them into its tubes, where air sucks the apples into a bin.

The machine’s price has not been determined yet. DBR Conveyor Concepts was formed in 2010, while securing patent rights for the pneumatic decelerator and conveyor, which are integral parts of the machine.

Rasch, a fruit grower in Conklin, Mich., has been working on advancing the mechanical harvest of fruit for years. He said the Michigan Apple Committee and Michigan State University (MSU) helped bring the machine to market faster than DBR could have done on its own.

Growers recently got a look at the latest version of the machine at Riveridge Produce in Sparta, Mich., where it harvested two rows of Jonagolds planted in 3-foot by 10-foot spacings.

A tractor runs the harvester with a PTO, said Phil Brown, a farm equipment manufacturer and partner in DBR. Brown’s company, Phil Brown Welding, will manufacture the harvester. Dietrich’s career in drilling fluids engineering helped him conceptualize the pneumatic decelerator and conveyor in the harvest-assist system. The decelerator is what allows the machine to get apples to the bin without bruising them, Brown said.

New additions include a steering axle that allows the machine to track the tractor. The box trailer tracks the machine, and the entire unit fits in modern orchard rows very well, while also requiring fewer workers, Brown said.

“We’ve added an automatic steering control that lets the operator turn right and left and start and stop the tractor with a creeper gear that allows us to go less than one mile per hour,” Brown said. “Slower would be better, but right now it goes about 0.9 miles per hour.”

Another new option on this machine was the addition of picking baskets to one side.

“Having picking baskets allows the workers to pick and not worry about where they were putting the fruit,” Brown said.

The machine also has a tilting option for running on hillsides, and the platforms move up and down and in and out to adjust to height and row spacing, Brown said. DBR added larger screens to the blower to catch leaves and debris, yet they don’t require as much cleaning during operation; and an electric eye to the distributor head that automatically raises the head on the box as it fills.

“The whole platform is modular, to allow the grower to remove the harvester parts and use the platforms for any cultural work that might need to be done year round,” Rasch said.

Another option that was tested was the addition of lighting.

“On a machine we tested in Washington, we had a bank of LED lights that allowed us to color pick Gala at night,” Rasch said. “It made a big difference compared to what was hidden in daylight. We saw a lot of merit to doing that.”

Mark Zemaitis, a partner in Riveridge Produce, said they had worked with the machine for a couple of weeks and were really impressed. It did a nice job preventing bruising of the harvested apples, he said.

Phil Schwallier, an apple grower and MSU Extension educator, called the machine a landmark change in apple-harvest technology. It is on par with airblast sprayers, CA storage and 1-MCP SmartFresh, he said.

“We’ve been testing the bruising on it for five years, and growers will be impressed with the lack of bruising,” Schwallier said. “It works best in high-density orchards. Get past 12-feet spacing and it loses some efficiency. Remember that when you’re planting your new orchards this spring – if you’re thinking of adopting this technology. High-density fruiting walls are the best.”

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor





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