California strawberries just got sweeter with a new tool developed by a collaborative effort from Driscoll’s, Plantel Nurseries, and Solex.
Strawberries are one of those crops with high input costs, and labor is one of the major expenses in strawberry production. Both nursery and fruit production operations require a high volume of manual labor for planting, tending to the plants, processing of transplants, or harvesting fruits.
Shortages of skilled farmworkers is a major challenge the strawberry industry is currently facing and it is an even bigger problem for summer planting, when help is needed for fruit harvesting from the previous fall’s plantings.
The new mechanical strawberry transplanter developed by the three companies is a significant advancement in the mechanization of transplanting, one of the two major manual operations in the strawberry production.
The team from Driscoll’s demonstrated their 3-bed transplanter to some growers in an organic strawberry field this past summer in the Santa Maria area. Chris Jenkins, Product Specialist at Driscoll’s, conceived the idea and worked with Chris Waldron at Plantel Nurseries and Matt Phillips at Solex in developing the first mechanical strawberry transplanter. Tim McDonald at Guadalupe Hardware also helped in this development.
They experimented first with their 1-bed transplanter in February using celery transplants, which were grown to represent the strawberry transplants that would be available in June. In the meantime, they developed a 3-bed transplanter in the next few months. In June, Driscoll’s planted 10 acres of strawberries using their new 3-bed transplanter. The bulk of the misted tips are being propagated locally in standard nursery greenhouses.
“We took an Italian machine (manufactured by Checchi e Magli) used for transplanting peppers and other crops in mulch and modified it for strawberries,” said Chris Waldron. “It costs about $46,000 for the transplanter units that cover three beds. With the tractor, racks, seating, and other equipment, the total cost could be about $120,000 for the entire unit.”
It is estimated that when planting a traditional bare-root transplant, 10 farmworkers (including a plant distributor, a forklift driver, and a crew boss) are required to work an 8-hour day to transplant 1 acre of acre of strawberries, which typically has 28,000 plants in a 4-row/bed configuration.
19 Workers — Not 100
The mechanical transplanter can plant 10 acres in a day with the help of a 19-member crew, which includes the tractor driver, a plant handler/loader, 12 planters (one per each plant line loading the transplants into the planting slots), and five people checking the transplanted plants on the bed. What used to take 100 people to manually transplant 10 acres can now be done with just 19 people.
“Harvesting crew members get about $30/hour and putting them on a transplanting job with about $10/hour is not ideal,” Jenkins says. “With the help of this machine, we can now engage the farmworkers in high-paying jobs. It is socially, economically, and ergonomically a big improvement and helps our field crew tremendously.
“As the transplanter does most of the work, it will allow the available labor to focus on harvesting fresh market strawberries that fetch a higher price than processing strawberries,” Jenkins continues. “But one point I would like to highlight is that we are not displacing jobs with the machine. Generally, no one wants to do the transplanting job when harvesting is obviously the preferred job.”
Development of the strawberry transplanter is a major improvement to the production technology of the fifth most important commodity in California, with an annual value of $2.5 billion, as it can address labor shortage issues.
Advantages of the mechanical transplanter include:
• Efficient and uniform transplanting that requires less time and manpower.
• Avoidance of human errors in planting depth, j-roots, and other such issues in manual planting of bare root transplants, rather than misted tip transplants.
• Using misted tip transplants are an advantage because they are actively growing and are not dormant like bare root transplants. They are also in an advanced growth stage compared to bare root transplants, and will likely start fruit production 2-3 weeks earlier than the latter.
• Once separated from the mother plants, it takes about 6 weeks for the misted tip transplants to be productive, while several months of field production and refrigeration are required for bare root transplants.
• Local production of misted tip transplants is more likely to adjust to grower needs and probably allows for better control over producing uniform and good quality transplants that can be easily supplied without long distance transportation.
• It is less likely to have soilborne diseases from misted tip transplants compared to the bare root transplants from a traditional infield nursery.