Tree Fruit: Seeking A Labor Solution

We have two familiar shortages in the Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry this season: time and labor. A relatively cool growing season continues, with harvest delayed two weeks later than normal and very compressed. Labor is in critically short supply across the state, so picking fruit still hanging is not just dependent on decent weather.

We can cope with delayed harvest reasonably well as long as we avoid an early freeze, but managing the labor shortage is a different story. Even with gradually increasing use of the H-2A program, we are short-handed. Harvest crews are being transported all around our production areas, growers are carefully prioritizing which blocks to harvest, and plant growth regulator sprays are tweaking fruit maturity to coincide with labor availability.

It could be worse. We are certainly not facing the calamity that befell specialty crop producers in Georgia this year, where the State Legislature passed HB87. This law requires all Georgia firms with more than 10 employees to use the federal E-Verify system to check job applicants’ immigration status, and makes it a criminal offense to present false documents or information when applying for a job.

You might have already heard that available labor was reduced by 50% and according to a recent study, Georgia’s specialty crop producers suffered direct losses upwards of $140 million.

In addition, a report released by the Center for American Progress, “How Georgia’s Anti-Immigration Law Could Hurt the State’s (and the Nation’s) Economy”, concluded the Georgia ag industry could face up to $800 million in losses, including the cost of switching out of specialty crops and converting to mechanized production to cope with labor shortages. Go to www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/10/georgia_immigration.html.

 

Getting Serious

Although tree fruit producers are not yet facing the same dire situation as our Georgia colleagues, we may not be that far off. It is indeed a familiar problem — every year the availability and quality of skilled seasonal labor decreases, while labor costs rise.

That problem has no easy answer, but as the Center for American Progress report indicates, mechanization offers at least a partial solution. Anticipating this ever-shrinking labor supply, we have invested heavily in research and Extension seeking engineering solutions to routine orchard operations, from pruning to thinning to spraying to harvest.

Over the past couple seasons, research and Extension teams have been evaluating newly developed equipment in orchards. These projects are principally funded through the USDA’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative and while some of the prototypes under evaluation are near commercialization, others won’t ever make it. That’s the nature of high-risk, high-reward research.

Each project, however, addresses critical needs for tree fruit growers. The Big Prize would be a cheap and reliable mechanical harvest, a combine for tree fruit. We are certainly not there yet, but other prizes are out there.

We know we are facing severe challenges to attract and retain orchard workers. As Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association has pointed out: “Field harvest work is skilled labor.” If we cannot find enough skilled workers, let’s build our future with technological solutions.

 

Research On Display

At a recent field day in Wenatchee WA, a team led by Sanjiv Singh of Carnegie-Mellon University demonstrated an extraordinary set of novel equipment. We saw self-guided ATVs, electronic insect traps, an automated tree caliper/counter, and yes, a mechanical assist apple harvester. You can find more detail, including video footage, at www.cascrop.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=136&Itemid=635.

While this particular field day was in orchards in Washington, California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have hosted the team, whose project is titled “Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops.” Within this project, the mechanical assist harvester team is lead by DBR Conveyor Systems, Conklin, MI. Their system features a pneumatic transport approach for fruit and dry bin filler. The platform module is tractor-drawn and is already seeing considerable adoption among Michigan growers.

Another effort to develop a mechanical-assist harvester, by Oxbo International and Picker Technologies, uses a similar pneumatic transport approach, but is self-propelled and has distinctly different components. Its electronic sorting capacity allows separation of culls and real-time information on quality and quantity of sorted fruit right in the orchard. Go to http://pickertechnologies.com/more.htm for more information.

In both cases, we may see commercial units by the 2012 crop season. Yet another effort, led by Van Doren Sales and Auvil Fruit Company in Washington, may not be intended for broad introduction, but is one more indication that mechanical assist approaches to fruit harvest are not hallucinatory.

One more tree fruit-related project has, among other objectives, a significant effort to improve labor efficiency and safety by developing mechanical-assist harvest technologies in sweet cherry. Again, not every aspect of this project will achieve commercial application, but it is part of this impressive endeavor to provide U.S. tree fruit growers useful tools to continue farming.

Leave a Reply

Featured Stories
Specialty potato varieties for Florida growers
Potatoes
April 30, 2017
Hot Potato Trends on Front Burner for Florida Growers
Annual UF/IFAS field day digs into the latest research and comes up with appealing solutions. Read More
Crop Protection
April 30, 2017
BASF Adds Pest, Crop, Weather Modeling to Agricultural Intelligence Portfolio
ZedX’s agronomic models help farmers make better production decisions. Read More
Port Of Miami shipyard
Citrus
April 29, 2017
Florida Ag Commissioner Pushes for Probe into Unfair Trade Tactics
With a focus on Mexico, letter sent by Adam Putnam to the U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary stresses need for level playing field. Read More
Stone Fruit
April 29, 2017
Challenging Cherry Disease Keeps Growers, Researchers on Their Toes
With a few years of experience with more is understood about little cherry disease, however, few unknowns remain. Read More
Crop Protection
April 29, 2017
BioSafe Systems Introduces Broad-Spectrum Bactericide Fungicide for Specialty Crops
Alternative to potassium bicarbonate and lime sulfur for tree and vine crops. Read More
a group of ripe strawberries
Citrus
April 28, 2017
EPA Approves New Plant Growth Stimulant
RIO from Arysta LifeScience North America is labeled for use on citrus, vegetables, tree fruit, strawberries, grapes, and nuts. Read More
Fruits
April 28, 2017
Ag Labor: An Old Challenge with New Wrinkles
A new administration brings uncertainty, but change could be coming. Until then, here’s what you can do. Read More
Fruits
April 28, 2017
Don’t Miss the Ripple Effect of Ag Labor
When addressing the topic of ag labor, don’t ignore the ancillary benefits each agriculture job supports. Read More
Fruits
April 28, 2017
Organic Farms Continue To Grow
The 13% increase from 2015 to 2016 marks the highest growth rate in nearly 10 years. Read More
citrus psyllid closeup
Citrus
April 27, 2017
The California Citrus Grower Defines Leadership
While HLB wreaked havoc elsewhere, the California citrus industry came together and formed an action plan. Read More
Nuts
April 27, 2017
Keep an Eye Out for Phytophthora in Your Nut Orchard
After several years of drought conditions, increased water salinity, and a wet winter, your nut orchard may be more susceptible to root rot than you think. Read More
Citrus
April 27, 2017
Trump Creates Agricultural Task Force
Panel to examine issues facing today’s growers including labor, food safety, and regulations. Read More
Citrus
April 26, 2017
Perdue Sworn in as Ag Secretary
USDA launches Twitter account to help promote the industry. Read More
Apples & Pears
April 26, 2017
Debunking the Myth of Calcium and Fruit Quality
Nutrient management and crop quality clearly go hand in hand. But not always in the ways you might think. In Read More
Crop Protection
April 26, 2017
A Guide to Experts Tips on Vegetable Insect Pests
Here's a resource to quickly reach advice on how to handle insect pests in most regions of the U.S. Read More
The Latest
Potatoes
April 30, 2017
Hot Potato Trends on Front Burner for Fl…
Annual UF/IFAS field day digs into the latest research and comes up with appealing solutions. Read More
Crop Protection
April 30, 2017
BASF Adds Pest, Crop, Weather Modeling t…
ZedX’s agronomic models help farmers make better production decisions. Read More
Citrus
April 29, 2017
Florida Ag Commissioner Pushes for Probe…
With a focus on Mexico, letter sent by Adam Putnam to the U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary stresses need for level playing field. Read More
Stone Fruit
April 29, 2017
Challenging Cherry Disease Keeps Growers…
With a few years of experience with more is understood about little cherry disease, however, few unknowns remain. Read More
Crop Protection
April 29, 2017
BioSafe Systems Introduces Broad-Spectru…
Alternative to potassium bicarbonate and lime sulfur for tree and vine crops. Read More
Citrus
April 28, 2017
EPA Approves New Plant Growth Stimulant
RIO from Arysta LifeScience North America is labeled for use on citrus, vegetables, tree fruit, strawberries, grapes, and nuts. Read More
Fruits
April 28, 2017
Ag Labor: An Old Challenge with New Wrin…
A new administration brings uncertainty, but change could be coming. Until then, here’s what you can do. Read More
Fruits
April 28, 2017
Don’t Miss the Ripple Effect of Ag…
When addressing the topic of ag labor, don’t ignore the ancillary benefits each agriculture job supports. Read More
Fruits
April 28, 2017
Organic Farms Continue To Grow
The 13% increase from 2015 to 2016 marks the highest growth rate in nearly 10 years. Read More
Citrus
April 27, 2017
The California Citrus Grower Defines Lea…
While HLB wreaked havoc elsewhere, the California citrus industry came together and formed an action plan. Read More
Nuts
April 27, 2017
Keep an Eye Out for Phytophthora in Your…
After several years of drought conditions, increased water salinity, and a wet winter, your nut orchard may be more susceptible to root rot than you think. Read More
Citrus
April 27, 2017
Trump Creates Agricultural Task Force
Panel to examine issues facing today’s growers including labor, food safety, and regulations. Read More
Citrus
April 26, 2017
Perdue Sworn in as Ag Secretary
USDA launches Twitter account to help promote the industry. Read More
Apples & Pears
April 26, 2017
Debunking the Myth of Calcium and Fruit …
Nutrient management and crop quality clearly go hand in hand. But not always in the ways you might think. In Read More
Crop Protection
April 26, 2017
A Guide to Experts Tips on Vegetable Ins…
Here's a resource to quickly reach advice on how to handle insect pests in most regions of the U.S. Read More
Berries
April 26, 2017
Tips To Manage Winter-Damaged Blueberrie…
While low-chill varieties in Southern states may have experienced freeze damage for the second year in a row, giving those plants extra care will help ensure a good start to the 2018 growing season. Read More
Potatoes
April 25, 2017
Frustrated by Overwintering Culls and Vo…
It sometimes seems that culls and volunteers survive even winter conditions, while your desired crop needs coddling. Taking a look at how feral potatoes behave will give you insights that will help you get the results you need for your crop. Read More
Pest Control
April 25, 2017
How to Manage Three Key Potato Pests
Learn identification and control strategies to protect your crop. Read More