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

All Vegetables Stories >All Fruits Stories >All Nuts Stories >All Citrus Stories >

The Latest

Labor
CitrusBorder Crisis Not Helping Farmers
August 19, 2014
As thousands cross into the U.S. seeking refuge, calls for ag labor reform are lost in the uproar. Read More
Cucurbits
Cucurbits24 Sweet Watermelon Varieties [Slideshow]
August 19, 2014
Browse the slideshow below for information on 24 watermelon varieties from the nation’s leading seed breeders and distributors. Read More
Fruits
FruitsHandheld Produce Quality Meter Debuts At 2014 Internati…
August 19, 2014
Researchers to present data measuring dry matter, color, and sugar content of cherries and other product pre- and postharvest. Read More
Grapes
GrapesNew York State Assists Grape Growers Hit By Harsh Winte…
August 19, 2014
State to open winegrape market to grapes grown outside the state. Read More
Marketing
FruitsEuropean Fruit And Vegetable Growers Hit By Russian Ban…
August 19, 2014
Angry at European Union/United States sanctions over Ukraine, Russia has banned many food imports. Read More
Apple Grower of the Year
Apple Grower of the YearGet The Latest News On The Nation’s Apple Crop
August 19, 2014
American and Western Fruit Grower editors will be tweeting in real time this week from the Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference. Read More
Oranges
OrangesSour Forecast For 2014-2015 Florida Orange Crop
August 18, 2014
Paltry prediction signals lowest output in 50 years. Read More
Crop Protection
Crop ProtectionBioConsortia Inc. Bolsters Executive Team
August 18, 2014
Industry veterans Christina Huben and Dr. Susan Turner bring experience to plant biotechnology firm. Read More
Stone Fruit
Stone Fruit‘Ladderless’ Peach, Nectarine Orchards Explored
August 15, 2014
University of California researchers explore the concept of so-called pedestrian orchards. Read More
Farm Management
CitrusU.S. Sugar Buying South Florida Sugar Cane And Vegetabl…
August 15, 2014
Purported deal worth $100 million to purchase farmland and assets of Knight Management Inc. Read More
Farm Management
CitrusFlorida’s Future Farming Leaders Dig Up Knowledge…
August 15, 2014
Class 3 of FFVA's Emerging Leader Development Program learn a lot from road trip to California's Salinas Valley. Read More
Irrigation
CitrusWater Bond Will Appear On California Ballot
August 14, 2014
Voters will decide if thirsty state will spend $7.5 billion, including $2.7 billion for storage. Read More
Berries
BerriesFamiliar Face Settles In As New Florida Strawberry Asso…
August 14, 2014
Kenneth Parker’s deep roots in the community and knowledge of production challenges make a good combination for executive director role. Read More
Insect & Disease Update
Insect & Disease UpdateIs There Light At The End Of The Tunnel For Florida Cit…
August 14, 2014
Time is of the essence in the race to beat greening. Read More
Insect & Disease Update
Insect & Disease UpdateCoca-Cola Shares Additional $1.5 Million To Fight Citru…
August 14, 2014
Grant to help UF/IFAS researchers work toward a solution for devastating disease. Read More
Farm Management
CitrusU.S. Fall Weather Outlook Foresees Wild Ride
August 14, 2014
From continued drought in the West, to a possible early Polar Vortex visit in the East, forecasters are predicting an active autumn. Read More
Apples & Pears
Apples & PearsGrower Tells Consumers Where Their Pears Come From
August 13, 2014
Washington’s Stemilt Growers introduces Rushing Rivers as its new pear label. Read More
Apples & Pears
Apples & PearsUSApple Takes First Place At Agricultural Editors’ Aw…
August 13, 2014
Organization is honored for web presence and healthy eating campaign. Read More