Sometimes less is more. That may be true in the development of automated harvesters as the U.S. apple industry continues its quest for mechanization to save money and alleviate labor shortages.

For years, developers have focused on prototype harvesters that replace picking bags and ladders with conveyor belts or vacuum tubes and adjustable platforms that allow pickers to more easily reach the fruit. The belts or tubes carry the fruit to a sorting area on the machine, where optical scanners or people separate the apples into bins.

The trouble with such Jules Verne-like efforts is after years of testing most of the automated pickers don’t appear to work well enough to justify the cost, orchardists say. The industry has now turned its attention to a less ambitious alternative — a simple picking platform that increases productivity by replacing ladders but avoids high-tech conveyance tubes and bin fillers.

Low-tech alternative

The Bandit Xpress, made by Automated Ag Systems of Moses Lake, Wash., is the first basic platform made in the U.S. and commercially available. It can be operated by anyone, said Tom Auvil, research horticulturalist at the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Wenatchee.

European-made counterparts break down more often and “you just wouldn’t trust anyone to operate,” Auvil said. Some have no mechanical assist for moving bins on and off the platform.

“The industry didn’t convert to aluminum ladders all in one year, so we shouldn’t look at any one of these as a total replacement until growers can really make them pay,” he said.

High-tech harvesters, made in the U.S. and Europe, have also had their problems. If too many apples go into a vacuum tube too quickly the system clogs and fruit is bruised. Deceleration of fruit in the tubes and getting it through bin fillers bruise-free has been a problem. It may be several years before the bin fillers work as well as they should, Auvil said. Moving bins efficiently on and off platforms has been another challenge.

“Issues with productivity and reliability need to be worked out. Conveyance of fruit inside a closed harvest system may be an ongoing issue,” Auvil said.

Training crews to operate high-tech harvesters efficiently can be as big an issue as mechanical reliability, he said.

J.J. Dagorret, owner of Automated Ag Systems, comes from a background of building equipment for harvesting fruits and nuts in Northern California.

He built the Bin Bandit in 2008 to haul bins and last fall built a self-propelled picking platform he called the Bandit Xpress. It can also be used for pruning, training and thinning apple and other fruit trees grown with trellises.

While some high-tech harvesters cost as much as $200,000 to $300,000 apiece, Dagorret offers the Bandit Xpress at $50,000. He has sold four and has orders for seven more.

“Bigger growers need something that covers ground and is reliable. When they have expensive harvest machines in the field that are not running, they’re not making money,” Dagorret said. “I’m providing something simple that runs and is 35 percent more efficient than ladders.”

The Bandit Xpress is 22 feet long and 7 feet wide. It is powered by a 24-horsepower Honda engine that can run eight hours on 3.5 to 4 gallons of gas. It steers itself down rows but a picker must steer it from one row to the next. It can be towed on roads and highways by tractors or trucks.

Up to four pickers are tethered to the platform, two fore and two aft, on areas that are adjustable in height and width. They pick into conventional bags and dump apples from bags into a bin that a hydraulic hoist sets on the ground when full.

Pickers on the platform concentrate on the upper portions of trees. Ground pickers in front pick lower limbs into bags, depositing their fruit into bins on the ground before they are hoisted onto the platform.

Skilled pickers with bags can handle apples more gently than automated tubes and bin fillers, Dagorret said. They can continue picking into bags while bins change on the platform.

High-tech NW machines

Last January, Picker Technologies of Bellevue, Wash., had five $10,000 refundable deposits for its high-tech, vacuum-tube machines and was looking for 45 more orders before committing to manufacturing them.

It didn’t happen.

Growers don’t want to buy until the machine is perfected and that takes time, said Vince Bryan III, CEO of Picker Technologies. He sold one apple harvester in Germany and has turned his attention to making a transport tube for fish.

The 2012 model of his apple harvester, used in his family’s orchard near George, Wash., is now being reworked to use a dry deceleration of apples from its vacuum tubes for sorting.

“Automated apple harvesters are still relatively embryonic,” Bryan said. “The one getting all the chatter is J.J.’s machine (Bandit Xpress) and he may be the smart one by not making such a gigantic leap (into technology).”

Littau Harvester of Stayton, Ore., and Van Doren Sales of East Wenatchee, Wash., built six Littau-Van Doren harvesters in 2012 that operate on orchards in Washington on rent-to-buy agreements for $200,000. They use ground and platform pickers with bags. There’s a conveyor, hand-sorting table and automated bin filler. Like the Bandit Xpress, it can also be used for tree pruning and other orchard work.

Littau has had no more orders in the last year and is building a new prototype to eliminate the driver and have the unit driven via radio control by a ground picker, said Norm Johnson, Littau president.

Auvil Fruit Co., Orondo, Wash., has been the main user of the Littau-Van Doren machine but sets it aside for ladders when there isn’t enough cullage to make the machine’s sorting table economical to run, said Tom Auvil, nephew of the company’s founder.

High-tech Michigan machine

A year ago, Phil Brown, owner of DBR Conveyor Concepts of Conklin, Mich., said he needed to reduce bruising in the bin filler of his vacuum-tube apple harvester. He changed its speeds, changed some hydraulics and heads and says it now runs well.

“We’ve been running all season here with very little or no bruising — basically less than bucket pick,” Brown said.

The machine has been running without a breakdown all season at Riveridge Produce, one of the larger growers in Michigan, and is close to being ready for commercial production, he said.

Don Armock, president of Riveridge Produce in Sparta, Mich., said after initial adjustments and getting crews used to it, the DBR machine ran well for 16 to 18 hours a day through most of harvest. It was a big help in getting through a labor shortage with a huge crop, he said.

The machine’s bin filler bruised apples less than bin fillers in his packing house and picking into tubes resulted in less bruising than picking into bags, Armock said.

It was most efficient to use the machine for picking tree tops only and having ground pickers do the rest, he said.

Three husband-and-wife teams picked 16 to 18 bins per day per team using the machine versus 14 to 15 bins when they picked from the ground and used ladders for tree tops, he said.

Picking into tubes from a platform is faster than bags and ladders, he said.

“My gut is we’re picking tops for less money per pound than picking on the ground,” he said, adding he has yet to do a block-by-block cost analysis.

Ground pickers were paid piece rate and platform pickers by the hour, but Armock said it would be fairer to pay platform pickers a combination of hourly and piece rate when the machine is improved to have variable speeds.

He said he has no investment in DBR and wants to consider lower-tech platform harvesters like the Wafler-Cornell machine in New York, which is similar to the Bandit Xpress, before deciding which to buy.

What other growers say

Stemilt AgServices, a wholly owned subsidiary of Stemilt Growers Inc. of Wenatchee, manages about 8,000 acres of company-owned, -leased and -managed orchards in Central Washington. The company has tested automated harvesters for several years. While supportive of the concept, it hasn’t bought any yet, said Andy Gale, Stemilt AgServices general manager.

Stemilt tested the Picker Technologies harvester early on.

“The big challenge with these machines is filling bins without bruising fruit,” Gale said.

Picker Technologies’ vacuum-tube baffles are made with surgical-grade rubber and he’s concerned about maintenance costs, he said.

Stemilt rented and is testing two Littau-Van Doren machines this season but has not decided whether to buy them. It also tested the Bandit Xpress.

“It’s a neat little system. It’s more grower friendly,” Gale said. “There’s not as much to go wrong. I really like it.

“I think he (J.J. Dagorret) is on to something. Everything he says is true. Right now the theory is if we can get away from ladders we can be more efficient. That’s hard to prove with the down time of the high-tech systems. J.J.’s is the most practical buy. We need something that works efficiently.”

Scott McDougall, co-president of McDougall & Sons Inc. of Wenatchee said his company tested the Bandit Xpress and will continue to consider it.

“From a cost standpoint, it looks to be a little more reasonable than other machines, but the challenge is fitting it down our 10-foot-wide drive rows. It’s pretty tight,” he said.

Jim Morford, co-owner of Green Acre Farms in Harrah, Wash., bought two Bandit Xpress machines in the spring for thinning and harvest after using one for pruning. He said he ran them day and night for two weeks during the peak of harvest.

“We were short on help and these got us over the hump,” Morford said. “We like to have 300 pickers and this year we were under 200.”

Other than a couple minor things — a hydraulic fitting and electrical connection easily fixed with a run to the hardware store — the machines ran day after day with no problems, he said.

They were used in younger and older blocks, steep terrain, color and strip picking and clipped stems, he said. Crews took to it well and even did a fair amount of hand sorting on the platforms, he said.

Even with sorting and color picking, he said, he thinks the machines are about 30 percent more efficient than ladders. He has yet to analyze data for a better assessment, he said.

He plans to buy more and use them for pruning, tree training, trellis work, thinning and harvest.

“I think there will be more technology but when and the cost is unknown,” Morford said. “These are a good fit with all the jobs you can do.”

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