Oct 31, 2013
Apple grower tests harvester in real-world conditions

A mechanical harvester that’s been in development for years finally got some experience operating during a full apple-harvest season, bringing its designers another step closer to selling the machine on the marketplace.

It was early October, and the machine – called the vacuum apple harvester by its creators – was being used in an orchard on west Michigan’s Fruit Ridge. The orchard belonged to Riveridge Produce and Marketing, an apple grower and packer based in Sparta, Mich. A Riveridge crew was using the machine to pick Galas.

By that point, Riveridge had been using the harvester for about three weeks. The machine was taking a lot of the physical labor out of picking apples, speeding up the ground crews and allowing the workers to fill more bins – especially since they could use it to pick at night. In terms of bruising, the harvester seemed to handle multiple varieties (including Honeycrisp, Cortland, McIntosh and Golden Delicious) as well, and sometimes better, than hand picking, said Justin Finkler, Riveridge’s operations manager.

The machine (along with a second model that’s currently in Washington state) is now in its third incarnation. Fruit growers Mike Rasch and Chuck Dietrich, along with Phil Brown, owner of Phil Brown Welding, have been working on it for six years. They’ve put “countless time and money” into perfecting the vacuum harvester, Brown said.

“This is one of the longest projects I’ve worked on, and I’ve been in business for 49 years,” Brown said.

As part of the harvester project, Dietrich, Brown and Rasch created a company called DBR Conveyor Concepts. They hope to start selling commercial models next year. There’s at least one more major redesign they want to accomplish before the harvester enters the marketplace, however: They want to make it self-propelled.

The current model has three pieces: A tractor, the harvester itself and a bin trailer. A self-propelled harvester would cut that down to two pieces and shorten the overall machine by about 20 feet, making it more compact. It also would allow operators to vary the speed in smaller increments, both of which would improve efficiency, Brown said.

When the self-propelled vacuum harvester is finalized and ready to be sold, it will probably cost about $150,000 per unit. Buyers would be getting a versatile machine that can work year round, however. Besides harvesting in fall, it could be used for other tasks such as pruning in winter, trellising and tree training in spring and hand thinning in summer. It’d be like buying a mechanical harvester and platform in one, Brown said.

And its potential goes beyond apples. The designers think the machine can be used to harvest any round, firm tree fruit or vegetable that’s within the right size parameters, including citrus, peaches, pears or tomatoes, Rasch said.

Saving labor

Finding enough workers to pick fruit is getting harder and harder. DBR’s goal is for the harvester to reduce the need for workers by about 25 percent. Using the machine, the remaining pickers would be covering more ground (thereby making more money) and wouldn’t be as tired, Brown said.

It was Riveridge that approached DBR about testing the vacuum harvester for a full season. DBR was happy to oblige, since it needed a grower to run the machine in real-world harvest conditions. It will take some time to study the harvester and evaluate all the data, but by early October things were looking promising, said Don Armock, president of Riveridge.

At the Riveridge orchards, the harvester was being used to pick the tops of trees, which is normally done by workers on ladders. The top is normally the toughest part of the tree to pick. Pickers have to move up and down the ladders with heavy buckets. It’s slow, tiring work and leads to more bruised fruit, Rasch said.

The ground crews walked down the rows first, picking the tree bottoms. The vacuum harvester followed them, and workers standing on its platforms picked the tops.

David Alverez was tending the bins and handling quality control on the harvester. It was his job to tell the pickers if they were picking too fast or too slow and to make sure leaves and branches weren’t getting into the bins. He said he liked the machine. It’s easier, physically, than dealing with ladders and heavy buckets.

Erik Villalon, another Riveridge employee, said workers on the machine don’t get tired as quickly. It’s good for pickers who don’t know how to use ladders properly, and good for those who know how to use ladders but are getting older. In general, the machine speeds up the picking process, he said.

“The machine will only go as far as the workers let it,” Rasch said. “If they don’t accept it, we’re done.”

When Rasch heard workers were requesting to work both the day and night shifts on the harvester, he was encouraged.

“That told me two things: One, they like it; and two, they aren’t getting tired doing it,” he said.

Brown said the workers on the machine were being paid by the hour, whereas ground workers were being paid by the bin.

The vacuum harvester holds four pickers, two on each side, and a fifth person who tends the bins and inspects the fruit. One of the workers can drive the machine via remote control, so no one has to sit in the tractor, Brown said.

The pickers stand on platforms on the sides of the machine. Each platform has two levels, so the forward picker is 14 inches below the trailing picker. That way, they’re picking at two different levels. The platforms can adjust up and down, in and out, depending on the height and width of the tree, Brown said.

Aluminum shields help protect the pickers from sun and rain. LED lights placed under the shields are reflected by the shields out into the trees, thus allowing for night picking. The workers can see apples at night just as well as they can see them during the day. The machine could potentially run 24 hours a day, Brown said.

Each picker is strapped to a bucket attached to a vacuum hose. They place the apples in the buckets and the hoses suck them down into the machine. In earlier models of the harvester, the workers would place the apples directly into the vacuum tubes, but it’s much more natural for pickers to place the apples into buckets, Brown said.

“They just keep picking and the bucket never gets full,” he said.

The apples travel through the vacuum tubes, are slowed down by a deceleration wheel, sorted individually by a distributor wheel and placed into a bin. When the bin is full, it’s discharged underneath the trailer. An empty bin comes in from above to replace it. The machine can carry enough bins to go the full length of an orchard, Brown said.

The process of being sucked through the hoses removes the apples’ natural waxy film, but it’s not clear yet if that’s something to worry about. Riveridge will study the apples in storage to see if that leads to any long-term problems, Rasch said.

The vacuum system has been found to take the fuzz off of peaches, too, which could be detrimental to fresh-market varieties. Rasch said it shouldn’t be a problem for processing peaches, however.

As for apples, the machine works best with “modern tree architecture,” Rasch said, by which he meant high-density plantings – especially two-plane fruiting walls and growing systems such as tall spindle. In plantings like that, there is equal production along the entire height of the tree, and all the workers have to do is pick. They’re not wasting time positioning themselves up and down, in or out, Rasch said.

Riveridge might be open to purchasing self-propelled vacuum harvesters when they’re available, especially if they can perform other tasks. If the machine proves to be cost-effective and to handle fruit in a way that’s appropriate for the fresh market, the fact that it’s already popular with workers could make it a very attractive purchase for an employer, Armock said.

Matt Milkovich

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