New picking technology moves closer to automation

Locally-invented equipment could revolutionize Michigan apple harvest

Sparta, Mich.  It wasnt exactly a robot, but it wasnt tall ladders and pails either as Riveridge Produce Marketing, Inc., showed off a potentially revolutionary system of harvest equipment to Meijer produce executives and the media today. The vacuum harvester and accompanying automated picking platform were invented, patented and developed over the last several years by Phil Brown Welding, Inc., of Conklin, a locally-owned business servicing fruit growers and others. The harvester and movable worker platform being used in Riveridge orchards this fall  one of only three Phil Brown prototypes in the U.S.  hold significant potential for a crop that is still 100 percent hand-harvested.We wanted to help Phil Brown take this equipment from the testing phase into a fast-paced, real-life harvest, said Don Armock, CEO of Riveridge Produce, Inc. And with Michigan expecting 30 million bushels of apples this year, the trees are loaded with fruit to test these conveyance systems. Riveridge is eager to help refine this technology for two reasons: It provides significant ergonomic benefits for our harvesters and improves our efficiency in the orchard at the same time, Armock said. Browns apple harvesting system has three key components. The first is a picking platform that carries four workers who hydraulically raise and lower the platform to reach the tops and bottoms of four trees at a time  two on each side of the platform. The self-propelled platform is set to an automatic speed controlled by workers, and is also used for winter and summer pruning in orchards. The versatile platform system allows workers to be more efficient and eliminates time spent moving and re-positioning heavy ladders, the climbing and carrying of which is tiring and could be dangerous for fatigued workers. More growers are investing in picking platforms every year.

The second component is the new vacuum harvesting equipment. It resembles the traditional sash-supported pails used by professional harvesters, except that the bottom of the pail is a fully-padded vacuum hose that continually  and gently  conveys the apples into a bin. This ensures a worker does not have to carry 20-40 plus pounds of apples up and down a ladder. Its also a bruise-free process, the most important harvest concern for apple growers. Workers using the vacuum tubes are more efficient in harvesting because they can reach the apples more easily, and do not have to climb up and down a ladder to gently unload their apples into the wood bins. The fatigue that develops over the course of a work day results in less productivity. A third component in the Brown-developed system conveys a full bin to the back of the platform where a tractor loader will soon collect it, while conveying an empty bin to the end of the vacuum tubes. Even when it is fully implemented in the apple industry, this picking system will not reduce our need for migrant workers to harvest the crop, Armock said. Perhaps someday we will have robotic hands that can pick apples without bruising them, but for the foreseeable future we will need guest workers to help us pick over 1 billion bruise-free apples in Michigan. The vacuum harvester system has been largely developed by Phil Brown, Mike Rasch, and Chuck Dietrich. Brown, a welder, machine maker and inventor is very familiar with opportunities for mechanical improvement in the harvest and maintenance of the states apple trees.

The Michigan Apple Committee has provided some support to the project in a prior year. The harvesting system will likely be commercially available in 2014, Brown said. It requires trees that have been planted and trained to about 12 feet tall in a two-plane system, as opposed to older-style round-topped trees with large branches and trunks. Most Michigan orchards planted in the last decade have been trained to these newer spindle or axis style of growth already. Michigan is the nations third-largest apple producing state, and nearly 60 percent of the states apples are grown on or near Fruit Ridge, which runs through Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties. Riveridge Produce, Inc., is a leading-edge vertically integrated apple grower/packer/shipper, selling apples in up to 26 states and a dozen foreign countries.