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Fast Company

Can mechanized harvesting save both time and money?

Hand-harvesting requires teams of skilled workers willing to work hours of back-breaking labor, often in high temperatures. Yet the scarcity and expense of labor in recent years has created high demand for innovative, mechanical solutions to help get crops picked, packed, and shipped in record time. In some cases, innovation can be key as to whether or not a commodity is even grown and sold in the United States.

What’s In Use Today

While growers have used various types of mechanical seeders and harvesters for centuries, especially for use with grains or hardy vegetables like corn, this has not been the case with highly perishable or fragile fresh produce. Yet despite the tedium of hand-picking, the fresh produce industry has been slower to accept automation—though machines are in use for some crops, ranging from berries and grapes to olives and onions.

Today’s mechanized harvesters represent an amalgamation of both old and new technology. The “shake-and-catch” method, which predates World War I, is still in use—like in Washington state’s booming berry industry. According to Dr. Manoj Karkee, an assistant professor at Washington State University, this method vibrates the fruit loose, causing it to fall onto a catching frame.

The mechanical grape harvester is the combination of shake-and-catch technology and an over-the-row approach. Invented in 1964 by J. Roy Orton of Ripley, NY, the machine has continued to evolve: today’s harvesters are four-wheel drive, hydraulically adjustable for various terrains, and convertible to accommodate different trellis formations.

The majority of the fall onion crop is also harvested mechanically, according to Wayne Mininger, executive vice president of the National Onion Association. On the East Coast, Dale Shuknecht, president of Lee Shuknecht & Sons in Elba, NY, builds onion harvesters that can double as potato pickers. The self-propelled machine churns up a wave of soft dirt, causing the onions to drop on a tray where a powerful fan stands the bulbs upright and lops off the tops. The basic model runs about $320,000, and some support equipment (like a tractor for pulling the bin, and a truck to haul the crop) is required.

Perhaps the most high-tech harvester in use today is a robotic strawberry picker. Joseph Wickham, president of Robotic Harvesting in California’s Simi Valley, explains, “The robot picks at approximately the same speed (per robot arm) over time as a human. The robot picks one berry every five seconds per arm.” The good news is the robot can have up to eight arms working at the same time. Wickham states it costs several hundred thousand dollars, but is capable of replacing seven people per eight hour shift.

Due to the unique challenges of fresh fruit and vegetables, Karkee says “fresh market harvest is still mostly manual.” Bridging the gap, however, are ‘harvesting aides’—like at Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, WA, which grows apples, pears, peaches, and cherries. “We use hydraulic platforms which allow for a more efficient harvest and access to assist the conventional ladders that still dominate our industry,” says Roger Pepperl, marketing director.