Dec 30, 2014
BEI demise spurs race to fill blueberry harvester void

When BEI International, a South Haven, Michigan, agriculture equipment supplier, went defunct last April, it left several growers throughout the country without their promised harvesting equipment and parts, and with little hope of recouping their thousands of dollars in investments.

BEI’s demise also accelerated efforts to fill the demand for blueberry harvesters, equipment and services.

BEI had been one of the few companies that specialized in manufacturing and fitting blueberry harvesters. Its machines were popular and in widespread use for decades. The company’s bank called BEI’s loan because the manufacturer was unable to meet its obligations. Its assets were turned over to its secured creditor. The bank’s action resulted in an auction of the remaining equipment, parts and furnishings at the company’s South Haven facility, which attracted dozens of interested buyers, including some who had been caught up in the company’s tainted business dealings.

It also set in motion plans by at least three newer entries into the harvester market, although all of them had some previous experience working with BEI on various projects in the past, and brought levels of expertise to the business that made sense for blueberry harvester production.

Those companies joined Oxbo International and Stayton, Oregon-based Littau Harvester, both of which had been in the harvester market for years but were making renewed efforts to expand their reach through the nation’s blueberry growing regions.

At a fall equipment field day in West Olive, Michigan, a number of the harvester and spray equipment representatives were on hand to demonstrate their products’ features with growers. A couple of newer arrivals on the blueberry harvester scene also were making appearances at winter trade shows.

Oxbo International

Roger Bell, product manager for Shipshewana, Indiana-based Oxbo International, said the company had started out in corn and soybean equipment manufacturing and distribution.

“That’s why we’re in Shipshewana,” he said. “Ten years ago when we bought Korvan, we started to get into fruit and started building and distributing these (blueberry) harvesters.

“We have three models,” Bell told growers at the field day. “The Model 8000 is the most prevalent in Michigan. We have about 45 in the state and I’ve sold 10 over the last three years. The reason there’s more of those is it’s a price fighter – a rear-load machine. You have two guys in the rear, one driving. It comes into the market at an affordable price point.”

He said the single-drop delivery system on the Oxbo 8000 allows a quick transport of fruit from the plant into a tote or lug.

“The single drop and effective cleaning system deliver high-quality fruit in an affordable, stable platform with your choice of picking system,” he said.

“We offer this in four styles, with a rigid rear deck. If you have a Hummer Bee or forklift with big tires on it, you can use this rigid machine, where you can open up the gates and unload pallets.

“A couple of years later we developed a hydraulic rear deck, which lowered the fruit down to waste level. It’s a safer way to get fruit off the machine.

Bell said Oxbo developed a wagon system two years ago, featuring three empty pallets in the rear.

“You fill the machine, put your empties in the middle and load to the rear,” he said. “Once you have three pallets, you set that wagon on the ground and roll another wagon right on the lift. Up you go, and right back to picking. The goal was to improve the efficiency. Instead of 15 to 20 minutes uploading the machine, we want to get you back in the field quicker.”

Oxbo has developed the Excel, which enables the use of more pallets on the machine.

“The Michigan guys, especially the bigger growers, want six pallets of fruit on the machine,” he said. “We’re going to end up with an Excel that is 9 inches longer in the wheel base and changes the layout of the upper deck. There are four pallets in the center, two in the rear. That seems to be what a lot of guys in Michigan are used to with their current top loaders, so we want to be able to meet their needs.”

According to Oxbo’s website, with a new stroke adjustment, growers can easily adjust how aggressive and selective they want to pick by moving the head weights in or out. Now on a sliding pin system, it only takes minutes to adjust.

Primarily used for blueberries, the head can be used in multiple crops including raspberries or blackberries.

Oxbo also offers a double sway system that removes fruit by swaying the plants back and forth as a group. Oxbo blueberry harvesters use high-density, low-loss, 4.75-inch spaced catchers that retain more fruit.

McKibben Manufacturing

Also attending the equipment field day was Jeff McKibben, owner of Grand Junction, Michigan-based McKibben Manufacturing. McKibben had been involved in the initial BEI ownership group prior to the financial failures and continued to have a familiarity with the company’s products. He has provided fabrication and service work on many of the machines over the years.

He introduced a newly built machine that he said had performed well in nearly 40 hours of field testing. He said his company would be offering the machine for sale in limited quantities in 2015.

“We’ve developed a much better-feeling machine, which produces less collateral damage on rows next door to it, and it’s easier to truck,” McKibben said.

“We’ve maintained a very popular steering of a BEI model, with right-angle steering, so this machine will actually pivot on its rear wheel and is great for tight spaces at the end of the row – things like that,” he said. “This first one is a rotary machine that’s worked out great for the design and building aspect of it. We also have sway mechanisms. We’re big fans of the sway. Also, it goes into the rotary frame very easily and is a logical way to go since we’ve built many sways ourselves.”

McKibben noted that three years ago the company started building side-mount machines that rode with the tractor and “have been very good. That was the logical spot for us to start with. We’ve built a lot of nice features into those machines, with nose cones that open up in the front so you can wash things out, and high-pressure cleaning fans. We use a lot of stainless steel in our machines, thinking that food safety isn’t getting any easier.

“We’ve translated a lot of those features into this (new) machine, using high-pressure fans that are much more powerful and efficient than standard squirrel-cage fans. The nose cones on front are very nice for cleaning things out, where you can access everything. The modular belts that we use are a very proven system. We’ve made a good business replacing metal buckets also in the other harvesters with those belts.

“The rotary system that’s in the machine and the catcher fan in the machine is a system we developed over two years ago,” McKibben said. “It has been added into quite a few other machines of other brands.

“We took everything we’ve learned over the last few years with the side mount and other work that we do with rotaries and conveyor belts and combined it into this – a four-wheel drive, rear-load machine that really preformed very, very well. Things have been very successful so far.”

Haven Harvesters

Brian Spencer is the owner of Haven Harvesters, a South Haven, Michigan-based company formed as a new business venture for Spencer Manufacturing, which has been in the fire and rescue truck business for 29 years.

Spencer’s close proximity to BEI’s plant led to previous work manufacturing parts, painting frames and doing welding projects for the manufacturer. At the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in December, Haven Harvesters introduced a two-speed drive, top-load harvester with a drop deck that had been in production for approximately two months. The company has another unit already in production.

“We hated to see (BEI) leave the area,” Spencer said. “We heard from farmers (at grower meetings set up by the company) that there was a need for this. We were familiar with diesel engines, hydraulics and welding and painting. So we moved into this by making a few improvements and changes based on farmers’ input.”

Spencer said Haven “changed a lot of the hydraulics and the catcher pan to keep dirt off the berries. We moved the hydraulics away from the blueberries and made some removable pans with accessible spots for adjustments and cleaning out. These little changes we think are good improvements. The response has been good. (Growers) like the improvements and they’re very glad we’ve decided to continue with it.”

Spencer said he has noticed some hesitance on the part of potential purchasers to move forward following the BEI situation.

“Folks in the market are wary because of it, but the local ones know us and our reputation. A lot of them were waiting for this show to see what we were going to bring to it. We’ve already been doing a lot of (harvester) service work. We have a couple of former BEI employees who are good mechanics. We’ve had a truck on the road all summer doing service work in west Michigan.”

The company also has received inquiries from growers in other areas of the country, including Georgia, where some of BEI’s financial woes had hit the hardest.

Spencer operates the business with his sons, Garrett and Quintin.

“Being in the heart of blueberry country, we’ve been really excited about this,” Garrett said. “It’s a brand new machine and we’re just getting started. It’s an efficient machine. It’s safe and it’s got a lot of technology that’s been there for a long time, so it’s proven. We’ve been focusing mainly on input from growers. We’ve done some thorough research and development. Here’s what works and here’s what doesn’t.

“At the end of the day we’re trying to make a more efficient machine with improvement in all areas,” he said. “It’s about bringing more berries to the consumer.”

AG Harvesters

Brandon Schnettler, plant manager for AG Harvesters, located in Au Gres, Michigan, on the east side of the state, explained the features of that company’s new blueberry harvester at the Great Lakes EXPO, as well as what compelled the long-time custom equipment supplier to get into the harvester game.

“It was unfortunate what happened to the (BEI) employees,” Schnettler said. “BEI had come to us for fabrication and machine support to help fulfill some orders. We did what we could. We saw an opportunity and a good product.”

AG Harvesters is a division of ATD Engineering & Machine, which has been in business since 1956, building automated foundry equipment.

The company’s Model 3000 four-wheel drive harvester is a BEI-style machine with a 90-degree turning radius, top-loading elevator design with a rotary or sway picking mechanism. The company also will offer a Model 2000 tracked machine. It has a rear load or top load design and comes with a rotary or sway picking mechanism.

Its smaller model 1750 is designed for high-density crop production, such as that seen in parts of Georgia.

“It’s just a little bit of a new industry for us but it involves the same technology we’ve been supplying all these years,” Schnettler said.

He said BEI had come to ATD to inquire about machining and custom design work.

“Nobody wants to see a company fail,” he said. “We tried everything we could to assist and bring costs down on framing, modifications and engineering. We didn’t want to see their customers go without a product, so we did some reverse engineering on what we saw (BEI) was doing and this is what we have.”

AG Harvesters has jumped head first into producing agricultural solutions, including further development of a tomato harvesting machine and a high-volume citrus steaming unit.

“We think we can bring a lot to the industry because our engineering staff can see things in a lot of different ways,” he said. “This (BEI) harvester has been around for 20 years with very little tweaking. We see opportunities (to make it better).”

Gary Pullano

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