Moving To Mechanization

Moving To Mechanization

As it has for most people, the recent recession has been no picnic for Ron Pearmine, who grows processing vegetables about 50 miles south of Portland, OR. But as he sees it, there was one positive side effect for growers, at least where he farms in the Beaver State’s famed Willamette Valley. The dwindling numbers of available seasonable employees couldn’t leave for more lucrative work in construction or other industries fueled by the since-cooled housing boom. “A labor shortage is coming,” says Pearmine. “It was just postponed by this economic crash.”

Concern over that potential labor shortage has led Pearmine and his brother, Larry, in recent years to think of ways they could mechanize more of their operation, lessening their reliance on seasonal labor. (Another factor was Ron’s belief that mechanizing harvest was simply the right thing to do. See “Mechanization Is More Sustainable.”) The Pearmines were inspired in part by the efforts of a grower/neighbor, Del Haener, who had converted a machine used on Brussels sprouts to a cauliflower harvester.

“I don’t want to say it was our idea, as we basically copied Del’s machine,” says an unassuming Ron Pearmine. “Like all ideas, it was just sort of floating around, and we grabbed a piece.”

Trials Encouraging

Pearmine set up some initial small trial plots for the 2008 growing season. He had built a unit that was originally intended for cauliflower and set about modifying it to harvest broccoli. He estimates that the total cost of materials was about $30,000. “There was a lot of labor, though,” he says. “A lot of welding, cutting — not to mention standing around thinking.”

The trials that year went well. Buoyed by his success, Pearmine planted some much larger plots this past season that would provide some “real-world” insight into the success of the system. Initially, he was quite pleased at how it was going, thinking that two people operating the unit might well be able to replace the regular nine-man crews who ordinarily harvest the broccoli fields by hand.

“I was optimistic then; I hadn’t accounted for all the trash,” he said recently. “We had to slow down a bunch to get the leaves out, and then the two guys still spent hours cleaning the product.”

Baby Steps

The trial was far from a total failure, however. Pearmine ran the numbers and found that with the harvester, a two-man crew could harvest about 15,000 pounds of broccoli a day. A nine-man hand crew, meanwhile, can harvest about 50,000 pounds a day. That means that on a per-person basis, it was 7,500 pounds with the machine, and 5,500 pounds by hand. “It’s discouraging,” says Pearmine, “I thought the numbers would be a lot better.”

Pearmine Farms At A Glance

Location: Gervais, OR
Employees: Seven full-time, 20 part-time/seasonal
Total Vegetable Acreage: Approximately 550, all for processing. Also raises grass seed, wheat, and clover.
Acreage Breakdown:
225 - Sweet Corn
125 - Green Beans
110 - Broccoli
85 - Cauliflower

But it’s a start, and Pearmine has learned a lot of valuable lessons. First, and most obviously, he’s got to overcome the problem with all the waste material. He believes that there might be a way to install a cleaning system, possibly involving the use of fans that might work. In fact, properly engineered, such a system might mean that just a single person could operate the harvester.

Another problem that must be solved is that the yields of the machine-harvested fields weren’t as high as the hand-harvested fields. That’s partly
because the machine simply cuts at a certain height, without regard to the height of the plant itself. A person obviously can cut to a height of whatever’s necessary. “But we’re still in the experimental phase,” says a still-optimistic Pearmine, “not developmental.”

Horticultural Answers

Part of the reason for Pearmine’s optimism lies in the fact that he believes some of these obstacles can be overcome not necessarily by adapting the machine, but by adapting the product. Developing new varieties of broccoli that are more machine-friendly would go a long way to solving his problems.

For example, a variety that matures uniformly would be most welcome because all the plants would be cut at just the right size. But the chief variety Pearmine grows — for Norpac Foods, Inc., which selects the varieties — does not come close to maturing uniformly. Ordinarily, a hand crew has to go through three separate times over 10 days to harvest the entire field.

Pearmine says what he needs is a variety that matures uniformly, while retaining the attributes that both he and Norpac desire, such as climactic suitability, great flavor and shape, etc. “We haven’t found one yet,” he says, “but even if we could only find a system for getting the leaves out, we would go mechanical.”

And that leads back to the machine itself. While conceding he is less optimistic than he was last summer, and that it will take some real perseverance to continue, Pearmine doesn’t sound like a man who’s giving up any time soon. After all, when the going gets tough, the tough take a road trip. Seriously, Pearmine says he’s going to go look at some machines in Europe to get some ideas.

“Rather than build all this stuff from scratch, I thought, ‘Let’s take a trip to France,’” he says of his plans for the future. “The short answer is ‘We’re not finished working on it.’”

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2 comments on “Moving To Mechanization

  1. Tell Mr Pearmine to look at mechanical tobacco topping machines that blow the leaves down just before cutting the tops out.

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