Making harvests more efficient

Kelly and J.J. Dagorret, owners of Automated Ag Systems in Moses Lake, Wash., at the assembly line of Bandit Xpress harvest-assist platforms.

MOSES LAKE, Wash. — J.J. Dagorret doesn’t make detailed drawings. When he gets an idea he mulls it over in his mind.

“I get irritable. I need my concentration. I can be like a mad scientist,” he says.

When he’s ready, he tells his workers what he needs. What to cut. What to weld. What goes here. What goes there. How long that needs to be. No, it needs to go like that.

“It’s all wrapped up in my head and I can see it. It takes me eight weeks to build a prototype. I like the nuts and bolts side of things,” he says.

Dagorret, 41, is an innovator who is beginning to make his mark on the tree fruit industry. His self-propelled harvest assist platform, Bandit Xpress, which he designed in 2012, has become a hot item for picking and thinning apples and pruning and training trees.

Automated Ag Systems, Dagorret’s Moses Lake company, has built and sold about 450 Bandit Xpress platforms from 2013 through 2016.

Most of them went to growers in Washington, but others also went to Oregon, California, New York, Michigan, New Zealand, Australia, South America and South Africa.

About 70 of the 275 on order this year have already been built, and production capacity will double next year when the company gains full use of a 60,000-square-foot facility it bought in January.

Dagorret says he needs the space to keep up with demand.

“We have guys screaming for machines. It’s hard to grow with demand,” he said.

He sees no end in sight to the growth the next several years as more orchardists see that a $63,000 Bandit Xpress is 35 percent more efficient, and safer, than picking apples with ladders, he said.

That’s a savings as labor grows more scarce and expensive. Simplicity, quality and affordability are what growers want, Dagorret said.

Up to four pickers are tethered to the Bandit Xpress platform, two fore and two aft, on areas that are adjustable in height and width. They pick into conventional bags and gently dump apples from bags into a bin that is raised to the platform with a hydraulic scissor lift and lowered when full. Bins are set out by tractors in advance and removed when full.

The 22-foot long, 7-foot wide self-propelled platform is powered by a 24-horsepower Honda engine that can go eight hours on 3.5 to 4 gallons of gas.

Dagorret soon will offer the Bandit Xpress .5 that will be four feet shorter and a foot narrower to better fit 10-foot-wide alleys in V-trellis orchard systems.

Sales are growing mainly among larger tree fruit companies. Stemilt Ag Services in Wenatchee has bought 28 and has 37 more on order over the next few years, Dagorret said. This year, the company will try the Bandit Scout, designed for ground picking ahead of the Xpress. Stemilt will also try the air-cushioned Bin Bandit, which can move 400 to 500 apple-filled bins per day, two to four times the amount a tractor can move, and more gently.

Yakima grower Bruce Allen has 14 Bandit Xpress platforms, Washington Fruit and Produce has six or seven, Zirkle Fruit has six, Kershaw Fruit will run 12 this year, Green Acre Farms has eight and McDougall & Sons has four, Dagorret said.

“I think we’re changing the way things are done in the industry. I get calls during and before harvest asking were to go to see them and work on them,” he said.

Of the 275 on order for this year, 180 are for Washington customers, and the next largest amount is for California , where Dagorret believes sales are about to take off.

Robin Graham, assistant general manager of Stemilt Ag Services, said he’s tried other harvest-assist machines but likes the Bandit Xpress for its sturdiness, dependability and simplicity.

“We don’t need complicated machines with electronic eyes, conveyor belts and bin fillers, and the Bandit is safer and more ergonomic than ladders,” he said.

Pickers do a better job color-picking apples at night with the Bandit’s LED lights because they see color better than in daylight, Graham said. With multiple shifts, Stemilt runs the machines 24 hours a day and pickers enjoy their stereo systems, he said. Stemilt gets 35 percent more efficiency, he said.

The platform works better for tree pruning in the snow than ladders, and Stemilt wants to go ladderless as much as possible, he said.

“I really think highly of J.J. From a service perspective, he’s totally invested in the user. I don’t know how he does it but he fields calls from our field guys and mechanics, brings a lot of knowledge and is down to earth,” Graham said.

Dagorret has also said he is interested in teaming up with robotic apple picker developers. A robot could go on the Xpress without building a whole new machine, he said.

In 2014, the Bandit Xpress was a Top 10 innovation displayed at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif. This year, the company’s Melon Wrangler, a harvest assist machine for melons and other vine-grown produce, was chosen.

He sells four different styles of Bin Bandits, two for moving apple bins, one for citrus and one for raisins and kiwi.

Dagorret’s wife, Kelly, 40, is the office manager and bookkeeper and does parts invoicing. They met in school in the small town of Corning, Calif., when she was in eighth grade and he was in ninth.

“I thought he was a pretty cool guy. He is pretty funny and his brain is always going,” she said. “You know his brain is going when he’s sitting on the couch chewing his fingernails.”

Th respect is mutual.

“She’s a very patient person. That’s what’s made this work. When I was young, I was wild and she would grin and bear it. I’m a lucky guy,” he said. “We have our little squabbles and stuff but we go home tired and know we did it for ourselves and not someone else. There’s some value in that.”

The Dagorret family is French Basque. His father raised sheep but when that market declined in the late 1980s he turned to growing and contract harvesting prunes and pistachios.

“I dodged the sheep thing and got into prune harvesting,” said Dagorret. “I loved it. I loved building shakers and using them.”

In high school, Dagorret began working for Orchard Carriers, a small Corning company that makes produce bin carriers. He bought the business in 2000 and a couple years later built one of the first dried-on-the-vine raisin harvesters.

A friend asked him to build crates for pachyderms.

“I didn’t know what a pachyderm was so I said sure,” he said.

He built two, 10-by-20-foot steel crates for transporting elephants that are still used by a leading elephant mover today.

Business was increasing for Orchard Carriers in 2005, but most of it was in the San Joaquin Valley. The Dagorrets sold to a company in the Modesto area and moved to Florida to join a venture building machines for citrus fruit. That failed, as did Dagorret’s solo efforts selling a bell pepper and cucumber harvester he built.

“I carried it all over the damn country down there and just couldn’t get it to go, so I went back to my roots and developed a high-density bin carrier for apples and marketed it in New York,” he said.

That led to moving to Washington in 2011 to be in the country’s largest apple-production region.

J.J. Dagorret

Occupation: Owner, Automated Ag Systems LLC, Moses Lake, Wash.

Age: 41

Born: Chico, Calif., raised in Corning.

Family: Wife, Kelly, company office manager; son, J.P., 18, also works in the company.

Education: Graduate of Corning High School, 1994; welding certificate, Butte Community College, Chico, 1996.

Work History: Worked for Orchard Carriers, a produce bin carrier manufacturer in Corning, during and after high school; bought the company in 2000; sold the company in 2005; started Automated Ag Systems in Tampa, Fla., 2007; moved the company to Moses Lake, Wash., in 2011.

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