Feb 12, 2016
Harvest technology curbs labor woes

Michigan apple grower Steve Tennes has seen his attempts to grow his farm’s production numbers crimped by ongoing labor concerns. His foray into finding a solution to those challenges was bolstered this past growing season with the first-time use of a vacuum harvester made in his home state.

The owner of Country Mill – a farm and agritainment business near Charlotte, Michigan – purchased a platform harvester from DBR Conveyor Concepts to make headway on his 120-acre operation that consists of apples, peaches, blueberries and sweet cherries, along with sweet corn and pumpkins.

“Labor has been the limiting factor in the growth of our apple production,” Tennes said.

Use of the DBR unit has provided benefits focusing directly on the availability and use of his labor force.

“The elimination of the ladders and 40 pounds on your back is a total game changer,” he said. “It is safer, creates less bruising and easier on the employee than climbing on ladders. I was able to have new employees like high school students and stay-at-home moms jump on the machine and perform equally against experienced apple pickers.”

Country Mill also has a u-pick operation, “which means that customers pick the bottom of the trees and leave the apples on the top. It is always a challenge to get our piece-rate workers to pick only the tops of these trees. The DBR made this job fast, easy and hassle free,” Tennes said.

Tennes said the farm used the DBR to spot-pick just the tops of the Honeycrisp without disturbing the bottom of the tree.

“If this had been done with ladders, we would have knocked off too many of the apples on the bottom of the tree,” he said.

He also appreciates other features of the rig.

“Although we did not perform any night harvest, the LED lights that come on the machine could really allow a grower to maximize the use of the DBR,” he said.

The DBR machine works best, Tennes believes, in dwarf plantings that are pruned as a 3- to 4-foot-wide fruiting wall.

“We are currently going through our semi-dwarf planting and reshaping them to facilitate easier harvest with the DBR,” he said.

One of the challenges of using this product or other similar offerings in the orchard setting is determining how to compensate workers, Tennes said.

“We need to figure out a way to count the number of apples that pass through each tube so that each individual picker can be paid peace rate for their individual performance,” he said. “Currently, all four pickers pick into the same box at the same time. This year, we paid hourly for the pickers on the DBR harvester. Some of the piece-rate workers don’t want to work hourly.”

Tennes said he would recommend the DBR harvester “to any grower with dwarf plantings that has experienced a labor shortage or expects one. We looked seriously into the H-2A program to help solve our labor issues, but we identified a lot of potential issues with mixing our work force in our orchard, processing and farm market operation. Investing in the DBR was a less expensive option that allowed us to choose from a greater pool of potential employees that we already had working for us on the farm market.”

Phil Brown, owner of Phil Brown Welding in Conklin, Michigan, who has been working with Chuck Dietrich and Mike Rasch on the harvester project for more than eight years, said a better labor environment in 2015 and an increase in the use of H-2A workers has put some growers in a wait-and-see mode regarding the purchase of an apple harvester system.

“Naturally, with the influx of H-2A people this year, the big push for help like it was a couple of years ago has been lessened, but they also have to look at the cost per bushel for what it’s costing to use H-2A,” Brown said. “(Using the harvester), we’re still going to be able to pick for way less money. We were picking faster and there is less bruising.

“By the time all is said and done, it’s costing $5 a bin more to pick with H-2A people, and we were actually able to pick faster and get better productivity than they were with the regular migrant workers. It will shake out in a year or two until people figure out which way to go. We have a machine that will pay off faster.”

Reduced instances of bruised fruit remains a big selling point for the DBR harvester’s vacuum system, Brown said.

“With our machine, unlike any other out there, we eliminate putting apples on apples and dumping in bins,” he said. “From the time you pick an apple and the time it gets to the bin, it’s never touching another apple. It eliminates bruising and it’s doing it a lot faster. In good picking conditions, we are picking a bin every eight minutes. No other machine can come close to that. They’re all still picking into bags and dumping into a bin or picking and turning around to put them on a conveyor system, then to another conveyer and then into the box.

“We feel our system has a lot of advantages, not only for speed, but less bruising and the ergonomics of it. The person is not carrying a bag on them, not turning around, and they’re not on a ladder. The grower is able to follow those bins through the processing and packing. In the data, they’re getting less bruising than picking on the ground and into a bag. That’s a big factor as far as better packout. They can follow every bin through.”

Grower reaction to the system has “been all positive,” Brown said. “There was more interest this year than any other. The big thing is having enough of those narrow plantings in the ground to justify it. It’s not going to work with 18- to 20-foot plantings – the old stuff. We’re looking at 14-foot spacings on down as being the most efficient.”

“I like the DBR apple harvester because of its flexibility, in that you can disconnect the harvester and use just the platform for pruning, trellis work, putting on pheromones, etc.,” Tennes said. “Phil Brown worked with us to make the four tubes long and flexible enough to have two of them for ground workers or be able to use all four on the same side.

“As any fruit grower knows, you need versatility and adaptability on the fly to make any machine work in the different spacings of your orchard,” Tennes said. “It is also one of the only harvesters that I know of that allows each side to move independently of the other side.”

Gary Pullano, associate editor

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