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.

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