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
Tom Stenzel, President and CEO, United Fresh Produce Association, talks with members of the French Delegation, detailing United Fresh’s work to increase children’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables at schools across the country.
Fruits
May 30, 2016
‘Fresh Attitude Week’ Promotes Variety In Fruits And Vegetables In School Meals
The largest U.S. urban school districts host weeklong celebration, Fresh Attitude Week, which highlights fresh fruits and vegetables and other nutrition education activities. Read More
The team at Lamont Fruit Farms  takes a progressive approach to staffing. “Give people the opportunity to excel,” Jose Iniguez says. “If our employees want it, we give them the chance.”
Apples & Pears
May 30, 2016
Is Your Orchard Ready For Mechanization?
Automation is on the horizon, and it would be beneficial if you’re planting with that in mind. Read More
high denisty apple orchard washington
Apples & Pears
May 29, 2016
Orchard Systems Matter With Mechanization
“It takes years to turn orchards from a big, wild 3-D tree to a narrow canopy — a lot of Read More
upclose of Israeli apple harvester
Fruits
May 28, 2016
Orchard Automation Is On The Horizon
Industry experts say the advent of fully automated orchard tasks are on the cusp of happening — with a few companies leading the automotive harvest charge. Read More
IFTA Washington Day3 6
Apples & Pears
May 27, 2016
Washington Apple Commission Elects New Leaders
The commission board also approved the export budget of $7.7 million for the upcoming 2016-17 crop, based on a crop of 135 million cartons. Read More
As this view of the San Luis Reservoir shows, California's drought is far from over. (Photo credit: David Eddy)
Farm Management
May 27, 2016
California Drought Far From Over
To preserve orchards and vineyards, growers are expected to fallow up to 350,000 acres of corn, wheat, cotton and alfalfa. Read More
These workers use a platform from Automated Ag for hand thinning. (Photo credit: Christina Herrick)
Apples & Pears
May 27, 2016
How Best To Integrate Man And Machine
If you want to implement labor-saving mechanization, you should start the conversation with the end user – your employees. Read More
Crowd protesting GMOs stock image FEATURE
Farm Marketing
May 27, 2016
Consumers Don’t Really Know What GMO Means, New Study Finds
A study from the University of Florida confirms what many farm marketers suspected: Consumers don't understand genetically modified food and organisms as well as they think they do. Read More
Asian citrus psyllid closeup
Insect & Disease Update
May 27, 2016
Alabama Agriculture Department To Conduct Citrus Psyllid Survey
Currently, Alabama is the only citrus-growing state that has not yet detected citrus greening. Read More
Ready To Spring
Insect Control
May 26, 2016
Temperature, Location Key To Predicting Leaffooted Bug Pressure
This year, leaffooted bugs are expected to be a significant problem in almonds and pistachios, but watching temperature and the Read More
The Latest
Fruits
May 30, 2016
‘Fresh Attitude Week’ Promot…
The largest U.S. urban school districts host weeklong celebration, Fresh Attitude Week, which highlights fresh fruits and vegetables and other nutrition education activities. Read More
Apples & Pears
May 30, 2016
Is Your Orchard Ready For Mechanization?
Automation is on the horizon, and it would be beneficial if you’re planting with that in mind. Read More
Apples & Pears
May 29, 2016
Orchard Systems Matter With Mechanizatio…
“It takes years to turn orchards from a big, wild 3-D tree to a narrow canopy — a lot of Read More
Fruits
May 28, 2016
Orchard Automation Is On The Horizon
Industry experts say the advent of fully automated orchard tasks are on the cusp of happening — with a few companies leading the automotive harvest charge. Read More
Apples & Pears
May 27, 2016
Washington Apple Commission Elects New L…
The commission board also approved the export budget of $7.7 million for the upcoming 2016-17 crop, based on a crop of 135 million cartons. Read More
Farm Management
May 27, 2016
California Drought Far From Over
To preserve orchards and vineyards, growers are expected to fallow up to 350,000 acres of corn, wheat, cotton and alfalfa. Read More
Apples & Pears
May 27, 2016
How Best To Integrate Man And Machine
If you want to implement labor-saving mechanization, you should start the conversation with the end user – your employees. Read More
Farm Marketing
May 27, 2016
Consumers Don’t Really Know What G…
A study from the University of Florida confirms what many farm marketers suspected: Consumers don't understand genetically modified food and organisms as well as they think they do. Read More
Insect & Disease Update
May 27, 2016
Alabama Agriculture Department To Conduc…
Currently, Alabama is the only citrus-growing state that has not yet detected citrus greening. Read More
Insect Control
May 26, 2016
Temperature, Location Key To Predicting …
This year, leaffooted bugs are expected to be a significant problem in almonds and pistachios, but watching temperature and the Read More
Fruits
May 26, 2016
Consider Fumigating For Nematodes Before…
Stone fruit and almond growers looking to replant orchards might want to invest in soil samples to assess nematode populations Read More
Farm Marketing
May 26, 2016
Who Grows Organically — And Who Doesn…
We surveyed 816 fruit and vegetable growers and found that farm marketers and vegetable growers are much more likely than their peers to embrace the practice. Read More
Farm Marketing
May 26, 2016
Farm Dinners: Your Most Powerful Marketi…
Farm dinners are a hassle. They’re expensive. And ridiculously effective. Read More
Cucurbits
May 25, 2016
Whitefly Threat Has Florida Growers On H…
Researchers, state agencies working together to prevent a potential outbreak. Read More
Crop Protection
May 25, 2016
More Apps Help Growers Identify Insects …
Berries, apples, pears, and cherries now rolled into new app series from Clemson University. Read More
Citrus
May 25, 2016
Monsanto Says Bayer Bid ‘Financially Ina…
Proposal cited as undervalued, not able to address financial, regulatory risks. Read More
Stone Fruit
May 25, 2016
Researchers Study Why Cherry Cracking Af…
German researchers studied how water uptake and fruit skin determined a cultivar’s susceptibility to cherry cracking. Read More
Farm Management
May 25, 2016
Report Highlights Benefits Of Trans-Paci…
National Potato Council says report from the International Trade Commission offers the benefits the free trade agreement would offer growers. Read More
[gravityform id="62" title="false" description="false"]