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
Pest Control
March 22, 2017
Fear of GMOs is Impacting Quality Food Research [Opinion]
Perhaps the greatest threat to our industry is a public that values instinctual opinion over careful research and the findings of experts who have dedicated years to their field of study. Read More
Business Planning
March 22, 2017
How HortTech Is Solving Grower Challenges
Dozens of tech companies are looking for solutions to real-world problems vegetable growers face. We take a look at what it could really mean for you and your business. Read More
Production
March 22, 2017
Weighing the Good and Bad of Six Soilless Media Options
Trying to decide which growing media is the right one for your greenhouse vegetable production? Take a look at these six options. Read More
Citrus
March 21, 2017
Industry Groups, Ag Leaders React to Proposed USDA, EPA Budget Cuts
New plan would slash USDA spending by 21%. Read More
Freeze protected peach trees in Florida
Cold Protection
March 21, 2017
Freezing Temperatures Hit South Carolina Crops Hard
Peaches, blueberries, and strawberries among crops damaged. Read More
fork digging into a plate full of salad
Citrus
March 21, 2017
Since When Did Eating Get So Complicated? [Opinion]
The bottom line to all this is the way we eat is undergoing massive disruption. Read More
Apples & Pears
March 21, 2017
Two More Lost Apple Varieties Found In Steptoe Butte
Amateur apple detective strikes again with two more finds in abandoned orchards near state park. Read More
Generic produce clamshell packaging
GenNext Growers
March 20, 2017
Packaging: A Powerful Way for Farmers to Reach Consumers
Growers have few opportunities to communicate with end users. Paying mind to what’s on the outside can help sell a lot of what’s inside. Read More
Organic potato grower staring at his crops
Crop Protection
March 20, 2017
Biologicals Gaining Acceptance Among More Growers
Driven by new innovation and consumer demand, growers look to the biocontrol sector for new solutions. Read More
Alternaria leaf and pod spot of snap bean
Disease Control
March 17, 2017
Prevent Alternaria from Putting Your Snap Beans on the Spot
Learn how to identify, the survival and spread, as well as management methods for this vegetable disease. Read More
Cranes at the Port Tampa Bay
Farm Management
March 17, 2017
Unfair Trade Taking Its Toll on Florida Farmers
Local grower community hopeful over President Trump’s announced intention to renegotiate NAFTA. Read More
Swadesh Santra of UCF
Citrus
March 16, 2017
UCF Stepping up to Be Farming’s Knight in Shining Armor
Hopes are high that the school's new agriculture research center will help growers solve production issues and feed the globe. Read More
A.H. Whitmore Farm in Leesburg, FL, as seen from Google Earth
Varieties & Rootstocks
March 16, 2017
Experimental Citrus Groves Disappearing in Florida
Challenges to growth expand as vital research is in dire need of a home. Read More
Frozen blueberries
Berries
March 15, 2017
Arctic Blast Gives Southern Fruit Growers the Chills
Peaches and berries in bloom most at risk from freezing temperatures. Read More
GenNext Growers
March 15, 2017
Introducing Technology, Farm Transitions among Topics at IFTA Young Grower Reception
Event brought together the next generation of tree fruit growers and young professionals in the industry. Read More
The Latest
Pest Control
March 22, 2017
Fear of GMOs is Impacting Quality Food R…
Perhaps the greatest threat to our industry is a public that values instinctual opinion over careful research and the findings of experts who have dedicated years to their field of study. Read More
Business Planning
March 22, 2017
How HortTech Is Solving Grower Challenge…
Dozens of tech companies are looking for solutions to real-world problems vegetable growers face. We take a look at what it could really mean for you and your business. Read More
Production
March 22, 2017
Weighing the Good and Bad of Six Soilles…
Trying to decide which growing media is the right one for your greenhouse vegetable production? Take a look at these six options. Read More
Citrus
March 21, 2017
Industry Groups, Ag Leaders React to Pro…
New plan would slash USDA spending by 21%. Read More
Cold Protection
March 21, 2017
Freezing Temperatures Hit South Carolina…
Peaches, blueberries, and strawberries among crops damaged. Read More
Citrus
March 21, 2017
Since When Did Eating Get So Complicated…
The bottom line to all this is the way we eat is undergoing massive disruption. Read More
Apples & Pears
March 21, 2017
Two More Lost Apple Varieties Found In S…
Amateur apple detective strikes again with two more finds in abandoned orchards near state park. Read More
GenNext Growers
March 20, 2017
Packaging: A Powerful Way for Farmers to…
Growers have few opportunities to communicate with end users. Paying mind to what’s on the outside can help sell a lot of what’s inside. Read More
Crop Protection
March 20, 2017
Biologicals Gaining Acceptance Among Mor…
Driven by new innovation and consumer demand, growers look to the biocontrol sector for new solutions. Read More
Disease Control
March 17, 2017
Prevent Alternaria from Putting Your Sna…
Learn how to identify, the survival and spread, as well as management methods for this vegetable disease. Read More
Farm Management
March 17, 2017
Unfair Trade Taking Its Toll on Florida …
Local grower community hopeful over President Trump’s announced intention to renegotiate NAFTA. Read More
Citrus
March 16, 2017
UCF Stepping up to Be Farming’s Kn…
Hopes are high that the school's new agriculture research center will help growers solve production issues and feed the globe. Read More
Varieties & Rootstocks
March 16, 2017
Experimental Citrus Groves Disappearing …
Challenges to growth expand as vital research is in dire need of a home. Read More
Berries
March 15, 2017
Arctic Blast Gives Southern Fruit Grower…
Peaches and berries in bloom most at risk from freezing temperatures. Read More
GenNext Growers
March 15, 2017
Introducing Technology, Farm Transitions…
Event brought together the next generation of tree fruit growers and young professionals in the industry. Read More
Citrus
March 15, 2017
Group Wants To Streamline Food Safety Re…
There are 15 federal agencies implement more than 30 different food safety statutes. A team of experts believe they have a solution. Read More
Marketing
March 15, 2017
Florida Peaches Scoring Points with Cons…
Snack-sized fruit presents unique marketing opportunity for growers. Read More
Nuts
March 15, 2017
Efforts to Thwart Nut Thefts Ramping up …
Ordinance revisions to end cash sales, include a 10-day hold on payments. Read More