Riveridge pursues vacuum harvest technologyRiveridge Produce Marketing Inc., Sparta, Mich., plans to expand use of a vacuum harvest aid on apples this fall after a six-week pilot test last year found benefits in productivity and quality.

The harvest aid and its automated picking platform were invented and patented by Phil Brown Welding Inc. Besides machinist Phil Brown, it was developed under the direction of growers Chuck Dietrich and Mike Rasch.

It was used on about 5% of Riveridge acreage in 2013.

“What we wanted to see last year was how well the vacuum harvest machinery handled the fruit from the picker into bin filler, as the first test of whether the system was a viable option for us,” Justin Finkler, Riveridge operations manager, said in a news release. “We were very pleased with the results of the bruising trials.”

Riveridge Produce sells more than a third of Michigan’s fresh apples and anticipates a 32 million bushel crop.

“While we plan additional tests this year, we believe the vacuum harvesting aid has potential to help address our labor issues and bring better quality fruit to harvest,” Don Armock, president, said in the release.

In side-by-side trials on the same days, blocks and varieties, the company found bruising was less frequent where the vacuum aid was used. “We believe that our future includes harvest-assist machinery, quite possibly this system,” Armock said.

The system’s components include a picking platform that carries four workers up or down on a hydraulic platform. It’s self-propelled by a driverless tractor.

Apples are still picked by hand, but conveyed by vacuum equipment. That equipment resembles traditional sash-supported pails used by harvesters, except that the bottom is a padded vacuum hose conveying apples into a bin.

A third component lowers the filled bin into the aisle, where a box hauler removes it from the orchard and replaces it with an empty bin. A fifth worker acts as a monitor.

During the pilot, conventional harvesters picked fruit from the ground as high as they could reach. Workers on the vacuum harvesting platform picked tree tops.

“Anytime you can take the ladder out of the equation, it’s better on bruising, faster for the workers and better on safety,” Finkler said. “In some of the trials we tried to use the vacuum harvester to do it all. But the worker on the ground is hard to beat for efficiency.”

The ground crew worked about 15% to 20% faster, he said.

Under LED lighting, the system enabled 24-hour harvesting.

The technology comes at a time when Michigan apple growers find securing a sufficient labor force difficult.

“Adequate labor in the orchard at harvest continues to be a challenge for us and most other apple growers,” Armock said. “This kind of harvest aid allows us to more fully use our labor pool. The less physical nature of using the vacuum harvester to pick apples also means we’re more likely to be able to recruit domestic laborers.”

Last year’s experience and subsequent improvements to the equipment allow Riveridge to begin paying workers the more customary piece rate instead of hourly wages, Finkler said.

The vacuum-harvest aid requires trees that have been planted and trained to about 12 feet in a two-plane system. Most Michigan orchards planted in the last decade are trained to these newer spindle or axis systems.