Considering the labor market, the time-sensitive nature of the work and test runs that show workers can harvest at least 20% more apples per shift when they use it, Phil Brown’s sure there will be a market for his latest fabrication.
Brown, owner of Phil Brown’s Welding Corp. in Conklin, Mich., has been working on his elevated apple-picking platform for about six years.
As the son of a fruit grower, Brown said he learned first-hand how difficult and dangerous orchard work can be, climbing up and down all day, reaching further than you should to minimize ladder repositioning.
Aside from the taxing, slow nature of the work, grower liability is an issue when workers use ladders, said Don Armock, chief executive officer of Sparta, Mich.-based Riveridge Produce Inc., which is testing the harvester.
“There is also something to be said for being the employer of choice with the labor situation as it is,” Armock said.
As of mid-October, Brown’s rig had been in use at Riveridge for about two weeks. Armock said it only took a few days for the crew to get used to it. Once they did he saw productivity immediately increase.
“A two-person team usually picks about 14 bins a day at about $18 per bin,” Armock said. “With this machine that increases to at least 17 bins a day.”
Separate tests ongoing at Michigan State University are checking fruit harvested from the rig for bruising and other issues. Brown said so far the researchers haven’t found any problems. They are working with different apple varieties to determine if the platform can be used for more delicate fruit.
Armock is doing some of his own bruising research, as well as a storage test to make sure apples harvested from the platform don’t develop problems after the fact. He said he hasn’t seen any issues so far.
Industry interest is growing, Brown said. Another apple grower in Washington state is testing the harvesting rig and demonstrations at Riveridge orchards have already shown officials from Gerber Products Co. and Meijer Inc. how the rig can reduce the time required to get the apples off the trees and to their destinations.
In its current form, the rig is pulled by a tractor. Brown said he plans to design a self-propelled version also. He said he plans to have the platform available commercially for the 2014 season with a projected price of $100,000 for the platform alone and $150,000 for a self-propelled platform.
As the platform moves along between rows of trees, workers can pick from both rows at the same time. The platform is lowered and raised as needed so workers can reach all of the fruit.
Fitted with work lights, the prototype went into phase two of the test at Riveridge when a second crew was trained and the machine was put on a two-shift schedule.
“That could really be crucial when you get to the end of the season and need to get the rest of your fruit in fast because cold weather is coming,” Armock said.
After harvest, the platform can continue to save growers money by speeding the pruning process by eliminating ladder work. Brown said he believes one platform could harvest 75 to 100 acres per season if it was used for two 10-hour shifts a day.