Mechanized harvesting, once considered a risky way to collect summer-season onions, appears to be gaining favor among some growers in New Mexico.

“It is,” said Chris Cramer, onion researcher with the department of agronomy and horticulture at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. “Labor has higher cost, and availability (of workers) sometimes is tight. Plus, there’s not a lot being harvested at the same time.”

Mechanized harvesting spells efficiency, in some cases, Cramer said.

“Our acres are going down a little, so there’s been a movement more and more toward mechanical harvesting,” he said. “In the past, it had just been for onions going for processing. Now, more it’s being used for onions bound for the fresh market.”

The knock on machine-based harvesting has been the risk of crop damage, and Cramer acknowledged that drawback.

“You have to be careful about it, but also there’s curing,” he said. “Our market had adapted to curing in burlap sacks in the fields and that came with its own problems because oftentimes we’d get July rains and onions in the field in the sacks got wet and you couldn’t get into the fields to get the sacks out, so what some of the larger sheds have done is gone to is actually harvesting and putting them into plastic bins and taking them to their sheds. They have forced-air drying in their sheds. That has really helped things considerably, because you cure the onions in the shed.”

Deference to machines isn’t universal, but technology is making its way across some areas of New Mexico’s onion industry.

“We’re starting to get into the mechanical packing,” said Jay Hill, salesman with Hatch, N.M.-based Shiloh Produce Inc. “One of our facilities has gone to robotics.”

Mechanized harvesting is a different matter, though, he said.

“The thing is, you do most of your heavy loads in the Northwest,” he said. “It’s real hard to bruise the hardy onion. But the softer onion, it’s tougher. We don’t have a machine that doesn’t cause a lot of mechanical damage. I don’t expect it to overtake the industry at this time. We’ve already seen it some.”

Hatch-based Skyline Produce is now in its 11th season with mechanized harvesting, said Marty Franzoy, manager/owner of the grower-shipper.

“It costs less,” he said. “You can save a lot. In the old system, we were taking them out of the fields and putting them in the dryer. Everything was in sacks and to cut your risk out when it rained and they rotted in the fields.”

Crop damage is not a big problem, Franzoy said.

“When everything works perfect, there’s no more damage,” he said. “You do it in boxes now, and it’s very gentle way to do it. When we watch everything, there’s very little damage.”

But, he said, mechanized harvesting works best with hardier onions, Franzoy agreed.

“That’s another reason we don’t do a sweet onion, because they’re softer,” he said.

There are skeptics, where machine harvesting is concerned.

“Based on what I’ve seen over the last few years, it’s highly unlikely to be successful,” said Jamie Hooper, general manager of Las Cruces, N.M.-based Charles Johnson Co.