Jan 10, 2022Huron Fruit Systems work platform eases orchard tasks
The ongoing labor crunch impacting specialty crop growers has put an enhanced emphasis on reducing the number of workers required in the production process.
Among the industry contributors who long-ago recognized this opportunity is Walter Wafler, who operates Huron Fruit Systems in Pittsford, New York, an offshoot of Wafler Farms that manufactures equipment that streamlines the pruning and harvesting processes. With Wafler’s more than 30 years of engineering experience, the company has developed a suite of products that are customizable to any operation and can be used for different functions across seasons.
Huron Fruit’s self-propelled, multi-level harvest platform allows pickers to harvest the entire height of the tree with minimal effort. With the system’s bin exchange feature, pickers are able to harvest without interruption.
The Harvest Platform is highly versatile and can be used for other operations such as hand thinning, wire stringing, pruning and more.
Wafler said the platform’s ability to allow continual harvest of all parts of the tree, allows the system to produce increases in picking rates (85% for spot picking and 50% for single picking) as well as a 10% increase in packout per bin.
The platform also provides reductions in picker fatigue and bin exchange due to the automated bin transfer system. While five bins are in use, five empty bins follow behind in a trailer to allow continuous bin exchange.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest, which has gone up significantly, primarily because labor wages have been going up and people are starting to realize that a piece of equipment like this really pays for itself in terms of labor savings, quality improvements and overall efficiencies,” Wafler said while updating the project’s progress during the recent Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“With the labor market wages going up and the supply of available people going down, it’s much more important for growers to look at a piece of equipment like this and take advantage of the cost savings,” Wafler said.
“We have units in New York state. Canada’s been a good market for us. We have units in Ontario, as well as Quebec. We have some in Ohio and a few scattered around the world. We have a couple in New Zealand, one in South Africa, one in Mexico. We’re starting to get some good traction.”
Wafler stressed that the machine “allows a grower to pick the tree in one pass without having to bin the orchard out. It also provides five bins so they can pick multiple products at the same time. For example, if you’re picking in a block that has hail damage or bird damage, instead of throwing that apple on the ground you can put it in a cull bin.
“The fact that we have five bins, we can keep one bin to culls. For the grower, it does two things. One, the worker has already picked that apple and been paid by the grower to pick it, and he can sell it for tree-run juice in the fall. The other significant savings is you have that apple in the box that is going to CA (controlled-atmosphere) storage and it doesn’t have to go over a pack line. (The grower) saves the money of having to store that apple, run that apple and then throw it away. Instead, he can use it for juice.”
Wafler called the savings “a big number because if it costs you eight cents an apple to store it, and eight cents an apple to run it over a pack line, and you get only four cents for juice, you’re taking 12 cents to that apple. Whereas, if you sell it out of the orchard as a cull, you get some money for it then, and you don’t incur costs that are going to be wasted. It’s a huge cost savings from a harvest standpoint.
“The other thing that’s really good about this machine is it’s multifunctional,” he said. “You can use it for trimming, hand-thinning, stringing wire and people can put 1,000 hours on it a year before they even start going to harvest. All of that labor runs easily at 2X in productivity, compared to not working from the platform.”
Wafler said growers “who have bought the system say, ‘I wish that I had done this five years ago.’ We’re getting a lot of good traction that way.”
“A lot of our customers are return customers,” he said. “They bought one machine to try to get their feet wet. Now, they’re coming back to say, ‘How can I afford to buy more machines?’ because it’s such a cost and time-savings for them.”
— Gary Pullano, managing editor; Photo at top: Workers pick apples from Huron Fruit Systems’ self-propelled, multi-level harvest platform. Photo: Huron Fruit Systems