Oct 30, 2014
Vacuum harvester redesigned to be self-propelled

A mechanical harvester that’s been in development for some time has undergone enough tweaks that its designers are nearly ready to bring the machine to the marketplace.

Once again this fall, the machine – called the vacuum apple harvester by its creators – was being used following another major redesign – this one to make it self-propelled – in orchards on west Michigan’s Fruit Ridge. The orchards belonged to Riveridge Produce Marketing, an apple grower and packer based in Sparta, Michigan.

“This is where we’re at, and it’s probably what we’re going with as it allows us to move forth with a whole educational, promotional and commercial part of it,” said fruit grower Mike Rasch, who along with Chuck Dietrich and Phil Brown, owner of Phil Brown Welding, have been working on the harvester project for seven years.

As part of the harvester project, Dietrich, Brown and Rasch created a company called DBR Conveyor Concepts. They hope to start selling commercial models in the coming months.

That process is following at least the fourth rework of the machine, the latest version being a two-piece model that is self-propelled. The previous version had three pieces: a tractor, the harvester itself and a bin trailer. A self-propelled harvester now cuts that down to two pieces and shortens the overall machine by 18 feet. It also allows operators to vary the speed in smaller increments, which improves efficiency, Rasch said.

“The quad platform is now driving our harvester that was pulled by a tractor last year,” Rasch said. “The tractor had supplied all the horsepower – all the hydraulics. We made it a modular unit, ball-hitched to Phil Brown’s self-propelled four-wheel drive work platform, the Brownie Quad 4. In doing that, the same motor that drives the quad platform is driving the harvester, adding one more hydraulic pump for the harvester and a couple of stack pumps for the valves.

“By marrying it to the self-propelled harvester, we went from a gear-driven one-speed to a hydrostatic drive, where the driver/picker can adjust to any speed on demand – from a crawl, or increased speed for turns, or go a little faster where the crop’s light,” Rasch said. “Plus, with hydrostatic you have brakes. Wherever you stop, the hydraulics hold.

“Those are big plusses in marrying it to the hydrostatic work platform,” he said. “Also, we lost about 18 feet, having lost the tractor and the draw bar from the overall length. With the turning radius – here we’re working in 10-foot row spacing – we’re turning alternate middles, picking the whole top of the tree from one side.

“We’re getting through in short order and getting more bins per acre. So their productivity is increasing and we’re eliminating ladder work.”

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.

“We can put more volume in the hose to process the apples,” Rasch said. “It’s like a packing line, with no turns, straightening the flow now from the picker’s hand to the box instead of making 180-degree turns. On the bin trailer, we built a stacker unit so you can stack bins three high now, allowing for more bin capacity.

“Any problem we saw on wearables, or any problems with the hose transfer tube, we’ve addressed it and we’re really happy with that,” Rasch said.

The machine’s biggest selling point, its developers have said, is 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.

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.

Another significant benefit has been seen in terms of bruising. The harvester has handled multiple varieties (including Honeycrisp, Cortland, McIntosh and Golden Delicious) as well, and sometimes better, than hand picking, said Justin Finkler, Riveridge’s operations manager.

“It’s taken 25 percent of the bruising out,” said Finkler, who observed that workers were, for the most part, adapting to the new technology.

“It’s still the same learning curve,” Rasch said. “In learning the harvester, we’ve seen people who can’t get it and we’ve seen people who think it’s a snap. I think it’s easy to train the right person on it. It’s nothing an instructional video to learn a four-step process (can’t address). We will continue to streamline the learning process going forward.”

Riveridge Produce and Marketing CEO Don Armock said he is still looking at the harvester, with the final price point being the primary factor in whether the company would eventually purchase one or more of the machines.

He indicated that with more of the operation’s efforts going into developing high-density orchards, the vacuum harvester could be an effective way to harvest the crop if the finances work out.

DBR officials have indicated previously that when the self-propelled vacuum harvester is 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 would be like buying a mechanical harvester and platform in one, according to the developers.

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.

Gary Pullano

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