A piece of equipment that could save California's asparagus industry could be nearing reality.
As labor costs skyrocket and foreign competition ramps up, many California asparagus growers are struggling to stay in business.
Their salvation could be a mechanical harvester that drastically slashes labor costs and helps level the playing field as the state's growers vie with foreign competitors.
The El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission is working with manufacturers in the hope that someone might come up with a machine that can harvest asparagus in a way that meets the specification of the state's growers, said Cherie Watte, executive director.
"There are several options," she said, "but we haven't found one that is the absolute answer at this point in time."
Two of those options are scheduled to be tested starting in March.
One is a two-row, 10-foot-wide machine developed by Kim Haws, owner and president of Haws Harvester Inc. based in Mesa, Wash.
The other, a single-row piece of equipment that is pulled behind a tractor, was designed by Bill Lund, partner in Geiger-Lund Harvesting, Stockton, Calif.
Lund said his machine will cost about $60,000. Haws said he has not set a price for his harvester, which he plans to lease to growers.
Lund, who started working on a mechanical asparagus harvester in 1974, is confident that he's come up with a viable solution.
"I think the machine is going to be a commercial success," he said.
His machine is relatively simple, he said.
Even in the event of a breakdown, "There's nothing you can't fix or replace in 20 or 30 minutes."
The harvester lines up spears in a lug box, just like workers do, he said.
The only difference is that it also collects the culls, which will have to be discarded on the packing line.
Only a tractor and driver would be required in the field, and Lund said he did not expect to see an increase in the number of packinghouse workers.
Shay Myers, an owner of Owyhee Produce, a family-owned operation in Nyssa, Ore., will be beta testing Lund's machine this spring.
"We're excited about it, but we're planning on learning a lot," he said.
He expects the harvester to be tweaked as a result of the test.
"I don't think it will be the final version of the machine," he said.
With the scarcity and high cost of labor in the U.S., Myers believes such a piece of equipment is a must for the domestic asparagus industry.
"I don't see asparagus being a viable crop in the U.S. in another five years if we don't have some significant change in automation or in immigration law," he said.
Haws' harvester also will be tested this season.
Selective cutting is a must to make such a machine viable, he said.
"The hardest thing is cutting mature spears without damaging tomorrow's crop â€“ the little spears growing beside it," he said.
"You want to go through the field and pick only the spears that are 7.5 inches or 9.5 inches or whatever you set it at and leave everything else untouched."
The harvester has photo-electric sensors that sense only the mature spears of a specified length.
Ferguson Farms Inc., Stockton, Calif., will be among a handful of growers checking out Haws' machine this season.
"It sounds exciting, but there's a lot of what-ifs," said Bob Ferguson, owner and president.
How many workers will be required and how many acres it can harvest per day are some of the questions he wants answered.
"If the machine works out . . . maybe we can stay in the game a little longer," he said.
Some growers need convincing that a mechanical harvester will work.
"Asparagus is an item that I don't believe can be effectively harvested by machine," said James Paul, senior category director, asparagus, for Grower Direct Marketing LLC, Stockton,
"I'm hoping the engineers can prove me wrong."