MOSES LAKE, Wash. — The warehouse on a railroad siding a few miles southeast of Moses Lake has no sign and the company inside, Automated Ag Systems, doesn’t need it for advertising.
Inside, the crew of six has plenty of work for the rest of the year, building the first American-made commercial tree fruit harvest platform — the Bandit Express.
J.J. Dagorret, the company’s owner, builds other equipment but he designed and started building the Bandit Express in 2012 to provide a simple harvest assist platform for use in apple, stone fruit and citrus orchards. His is the first on the market. Other platforms and higher-tech machines are also being developed, all with a goal of decreasing the number of workers required to pick fruit crops and maintain orchards.
Demand is good because the tree fruit industry is hungry for an efficient means of reducing its dependency on labor, which is growing more expensive and scarce, Dagorret said.
Its main attributes: It replaces ladders and moves at a controlled speed. It’s also used in pruning, thinning, tree training and other orchard work. Platforms just for that purpose have been manufactured by other companies for some time but are not designed for harvest since they don’t handle bins.
“We’re making something that’s affordable and dependable,” Dagorret said.
He sold four of his platforms from September 2012 through September 2013. Since then, he says, he’s had orders for 44 more and built roughly half of those. He quit taking orders for this year but anticipates building more than 100 in 2015 after he more than doubles the size of his production area and crew this summer.
How it works
The Bandit Express costs $50,000 apiece and is 35 percent more efficient than ladders for picking apples, Dagorret estimated. It is 22 feet long and 7 feet wide and powered by a 24-horsepower Honda engine that can go eight hours on 3.5 to 4 gallons of gas. It’s self-propelled but a picker steers it from one row to the next.
Up to four pickers are tethered to the platform, two fore and two aft, on platforms that are adjustable for height and width. They pick into conventional bags and put apples from bags into a bin, which is hoisted to the platform with a hydraulic lift and lowered when full. Bins are set out in rows in advance by tractors, which also remove them when full.
Pickers on the platform concentrate on the upper portions of trees. Ground pickers in front pick the lower limbs into bags, depositing their fruit into the bins on the ground.
His platform is more efficient for tree tops than bottoms, Dagorret said. When there’s a lot of fruit low on trees, ground pickers can fill the bins before they are hoisted to the platform, making bin flow a bottleneck, he said. To alleviate that, he’s designing a machine just for ground picking that carries four bins at a time low to the ground to run ahead of the Bandit.
The platform works best in vertical and V-trellis high-density orchards, he said. A lot of growers want a narrower machine, but at 89 inches wide it is about as narrow as it can be made, he said.
Orders and interest
Dagorret gained orders from displaying the harvest platform at the Washington State Horticultural Association annual meeting in Wenatchee in early December. He picked up 15 more orders at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., Feb. 11-13, where the machine was recognized as one of the Top 10 new products on display. Two of the orders at Tulare were for the lemon harvest in Argentina, he said.
“There’s a California outfit in Kingsburg that potentially wants to buy them and lease them out for citrus, peaches, apricots and plums,” Dagorret said.
About 85 percent of his orders, he said, are from apple growers in Washington, plus a few in Idaho, New York and California.
What growers say
Jim Morford, former co-owner of Green Acre Farms near Harrah, Wash., used two Bandit Express platforms in his 2013 harvest. He found them “durable” and “dependable.” The company has ordered two more.
They’re a good fit for 10- to 12-foot drive middles between rows but won’t work as well as growers push below 10 feet, Morford said. They also work better in narrower V trellis orchards, he said.
“It has a lot of potential,” he said. “It will be helpful to the industry in the long run. I think it will catch on.”
Dave Gleason, chief horticulturist at Domex Superfresh Growers in Yakima, said the company has three platforms for pruning and thinning but hasn’t used any for harvest. Domex ordered two Bandit Expresses and hopes to have them for this fall’s harvest.
“It’s a huge safety factor to get away from ladders, which is a focus of L&I (state Department of Labor & Industries) and we can improve our efficiency a lot,” Gleason said.
Stemilt AgServices, Wenatchee, tried one last season and has ordered two.
“We really like them. They’re simple to operate, durable and inexpensive,” said Andy Gale, Stemilt AgServices general manager.
Dar Symms, co-owner of Symms Fruit Ranch, Caldwell, Idaho, said he ordered one and is anxious to get it. He said he likes the simplicity and price and figures it will reduce fruit bruising that occurs with ladders.