EPHRATA, Wash. — The machine, apple variety, crop load, tree architecture and experience of workers are all variables that affect performance of harvesters versus pickers using ladders, a researcher says.
Karen Lewis, a Washington State University Extension tree fruit specialist who has spent years studying orchard mechanization, said economic, horticultural and engineering aspects all need to be considered.
When machines fit well in narrow tree canopies, there’s enough crop load and crews work well — more ground can be covered and more bins picked per hour in the upper third of the tree with machine platforms than ladders, Lewis said. Ground pickers are most efficient for low fruit, she said.
The top third of the tree is most costly to farm and the goal is to save money there by increasing efficiency. That is done by getting pickers off ladders and onto platforms, she said.
Depending on all the variables including apple variety, pickers using the Bandit Xpress are two to five times faster than those using a ladder, Lewis said. The DBR machine is no less than three times faster but she doesn’t know how the Littau-Van Doren rates, she said.
Lewis said she likes the Bandit Xpress for its price and the fact that it’s simple, durable and workers can take to it easily.
While higher-tech machines offer hand or optical scanner sorting, Lewis said, field sorting will be needed less as horticultural practices keep improving and cullage diminishes. Sorting out hailstorm damage will be an exception, she said.
This season proved that it’s most efficient for ground pickers to operate separately from machines because ground pickers are faster and the crop load is usually heavier on the bottom two-thirds of a tree, Lewis said.
It’s difficult to have ground and tree top pickers working together at different speeds and volumes, she said.
“Not everyone agrees with that but this year I think more would agree than not,” she said.
The Bandit Xpress can be operated either way, and J.J. Dagorret, owner of the company that makes it, said it makes sense to separate the crews when crop load is heavier on tree bottoms.
Jim Morford, co-owner of Green Acre Farms, Harrah, Wash., said 90 percent of his picking was with the ground crew working with the Bandit Xpress, partially filling bins in front of it that it then hoisted up for platform pickers to finish filling. It’s most efficient, he said, if crop load is fairly even from bottoms to tops of trees.
Phil Brown, owner of DBR Conveyor Concepts, Conklin, Mich., said separating crews was most efficient with the DBR in Michigan because ground crews are so much faster.
More headway has been made in the last three to five years with improving bin fillers than crew selection, development and compensation, Lewis said. Machines have worked best when attention is given to crew selection and supervision, she said. Piece rate versus hourly wage is another consideration, she said.
“Getting people off ladders is a big, big deal,” Lewis said. It’s crucial given the continued increase in Washington apple acreage and tightening labor supply, she said.
“The future is bright for this industry,” she said. “It’s never looked better.”