By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- A mechanical apple harvester, field tested in eastern Washington this fall, may be ready for commercial sales by the fall of 2011.
It will be tested on California oranges and peaches next season.
Mechanical tree harvesters have been tested before in apples and found wanting. Greater efficiency, including a reduction of manual pickers, is the goal. The Washington apple industry experienced picker shortages a couple of years ago and is nervous about losing pickers since many may be illegal immigrants.
The mechanical harvester still uses pickers but eliminates ladders and bags. The machine is being developed by Oxbo International Corp. of Byron, N.Y., and Picker Technologies of Mercer Island, Wash.
Tony Stolz, product manager of Oxbo in Kingsburg, Calif., said the first field test was this fall at Ice Harbor Orchard, northeast of Pasco. The orchard is owned by Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee.
"Unfortunately, shop tests and field tests aren't the same," Stolz said. There was too much bruising, cutting and slicing of fruit and the machine was too slow in loading and unloading bins, he said.
Adjustments are being made in Seattle but couldn't be made fast enough during the testing on Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji and Pink Lady apples.
Damage was 100 percent in the first four bins of Gala but was reduced to 20 percent in Fuji and 40 percent in Pink Lady, Stolz said.
Pickers walk next to and ride on the machine, picking apples and placing them into vacuum tubes. The tubes carry the fruit to a deceleration chamber where 200 gallons of recycled water slows their impact before they are scanned by cameras for blemishes and counted. Conveyor belts place culls in one bin and good fruit into another.
The machine will be affordable, but prices and its speed, the number of bins per hour, have not yet been determined, Stolz said.
The machine will be tested in apples in Chile in March and again in Washington apples next fall, he said.
Stolz's presentation was among several having to do with technology.
Dan Bernardo, dean of the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resources Sciences at Washington State University, said significant progress in automation and mechanization is needed in a hurry.
WSU hired Qin Zhang, a new research professor in automation, four months ago at its Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Prosser. Zhang said he's had contact with Picker Technologies and previously worked with John Deere, Caterpillar and Case on research while at an Illinois university.
Other companies have attempted to make mechanical tree fruit harvesters and backed away, Stolz said.