Riveridge comments on results of 2013 automated vacuum harvester test

Sparta, Mich. – A six-week pilot test of a Michigan-made vacuum harvest aid last fall, showed significant promise in several areas, according to Riveridge Produce Marketing, Inc., and the company has plans to expand its use of the equipment again this fall.

“Basically 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,” said Justin Finkler, Riveridge operations manager. “We were very pleased with the results of the bruising trials.”

Riveridge, a vertically-integrated grower/packer/shipper, worked with researchers from Michigan State University to evaluate the quality of hand-picked apples compared to apples picked and fed into the vacuum harvesting tube.

The apple harvesting system, manufactured by Phil Brown Welding, Inc., of Conklin, Mich., has three key components. The first is a picking platform that carries four workers on a hydraulic platform that’s raised and lowered as needed, with two workers on each side of the platform. It was self-propelled by a driverless tractor.

The second component is the vacuum harvesting equipment itself, which 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, gently conveys the apples into a bin. Consequently, apples are still picked by hand, but conveyed by the vacuum equipment.

A third component of the system lowers the filled bin of apples into the aisle, where a box hauler removes it from the orchard, and replaces it with an empty bin located at the bottom end of the workers’ vacuum tubes. A fifth worker monitors these processes.

Riveridge’s test of the vacuum harvester found significant benefits in several areas:

  • Improved worker efficiency, by not moving ladders and walking to the bin;
  • Ergonomic benefits and improved safety for workers;
  • Improved worker productivity and quality by reducing physical fatigue;
  • 24-hour harvesting capability under LED lighting;
  • and reduced bruising of the apples.

2014 harvest trials

“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,” said Riveridge president Don Armock.

“We did side-by-side trials with people on ladders, harvesting the same blocks containing the same varieties on the same day. We wanted a true apples-to-apples comparison of hand-picked fruit to machine-picked fruit,” Armock said.

Perhaps Riveridge’s most significant finding in 2013 was that the vacuum harvester handled the apples better than some of its best workers did. While it was used on only about five percent of Riveridge’s land, data showed that bruising was less frequent when the vacuum aid was used, Armock said.
“We believe that our future includes harvest-assist machinery, quite possibly this system,” Armock said. “Following some upgrades made over the winter, our team is eager to put the machinery to use again with another big crop.”

Up high, down low

During the pilot test, conventional harvesters picked fruit from the ground as high up as they could reach. The four workers on the vacuum harvesting platform picked the tops of the trees.

“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.”
“Having our hand-harvesting crew pick only what they could reach, and letting the machine pick the rest, probably increased the speed of our ground crew 15 to 20 percent,” Finkler said. “It was a trial and we learned as we went.”

Worker impact

Worker reaction to the new equipment developed over the weeks of the test. Some workers were stand-offish at first even though they were familiar with the self-propelled platforms used in pruning at Riveridge, Finkler said.

Before long, a sizable group warmed up to the equipment and wanted to try it, Finkler said. Those who tested the platform-based vacuum harvester quickly discovered it didn’t tire them out as fast as traditional ladders and picking bags.

Some workers wanted to work a full day in the field, and then work another shift on the vacuum harvester, Finkler said.

Riveridge is pleased workers like the equipment, and believe it holds potential to maximize an inadequate migrant labor workforce.

“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.”
“We believe new technology and better working conditions, such as those enabled by harvest aid systems, will help us further become the employer of choice to attract the best workers in our area,” Armock concluded.

2014 harvest plans

The vacuum harvester and accompanying automated picking platform are currently one-of-a-kind. They were invented, patented and fine-tuned over the last several years by Phil Brown Welding, Inc., at the direction of the “DBR team” of apple grower Chuck Dietrich, machinist Phil Brown, and grower Mike Rasch.

With another 32 million bushel crop on the trees, Riveridge plans to test the efficiency of the vacuum harvester again this year.

Over the winter, DBR modified the equipment to speed up efficiency and allow better maneuvering in the orchard by removing tractor and adopting a self-propelled platform.
These changes plus last year’s experience allow Riveridge to begin paying workers the more customary piece rate rather than hourly wages, Finkler said.

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

Michigan is the nation’s third-largest apple producing state, and nearly 60 percent of the state’s apples are grown on or near Fruit Ridge, which runs through Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties. Riveridge Produce, Inc., sells more than one-third of Michigan’s fresh apple crop in up to 26 states and a dozen foreign countries. The company is 25 years old this fall.

A video on the vacuum harvester is located on the Riveridge Produce channel on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xri88P1t040