What To Know About Orchard Automation

Bruce Hollabaugh

Bruce Hollabaugh of Hollabaugh Brothers Orchards in Biglerville, PA, spoke alongside a panel of industry professionals at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, PA, in January. His session, titled “A Producers Perspective On Automation Technology,” gave the audience a unique perspective and an opinion that draws on experience about some of the up-and-coming staples in high-density growing operations.

What follows are questions and answers on what growers should consider before switching over to automation technology.

Q: What are some of the benefits and challenges of operations that run on automated technology?

A: The biggest pro is labor efficiency. As we’re changing our orchards, we can use these devices in a better way. Something that we’re noticing is the type of training systems needed for making use of most technology are very specific. The two elements, the training system and the technology, go hand in hand.

Good horticulture in and of its own right is important, but it also runs parallel to technology. The only negative is that it costs more at the onset, and at the end of the day, even though there’s a greater capital expense, the grower benefits. There are more dollars going out, but the return is much greater. We’re getting our money back, and we’re getting it back earlier in the life of the orchard.

One con is that with technology comes an additional level of need for understanding how it works and how it does what it’s supposed to do. People always say, “Computers are great, when they work,” but the same is true for all technology. I like to think of Hollabaugh Brothers as a relatively advanced operation in our industry, but when technology that we rely on breaks down, we’re back at the beginning and we’re floundering. The more advanced it is, the more automated it is, and the more you rely on it.

Q: What does it take for a growing operation to transition into the use of automated technology?

A: A financial investment and a commitment to changing the training systems. In a more philosophical way, I would say that growers tend to get very comfortable doing what they do. Doing something new can sometimes be very difficult for people in our industry. Everything we do has a level of risk, and when you establish an orchard, you assume a lot of risk. With new technology, you are assuming the same risk, but multiplying it by four in dollars and cents. That was one of the big issues for us, establishing that we’re going to do something totally different than what we’ve ever done before. We needed to trust and have faith.

Q: How has the use of string thinners and platforms impacted your business?

A: The Darwin string thinner has gone hand in hand with adopting a new practice for thinning and it has impacted fruit size. We haven’t committed totally to platforms yet, as we need to be sure that we can justify the expense. We also need to be sure that we can work on something smaller and more configurable.

Q: You have said that the, “tree format and the system they are grown in are absolutely essential,” why is this?

A: I said it for two reasons: 1) It’s simple horticulture, better light penetration equals better quality and better tasting fruits. 2) As we’re developing platforms, we’re working with the engineers that design. They have to understand what it is we want to do and why. They may be able to build a really great tractor or platform, but if it doesn’t work with the tree, getting in there and letting you do what you want to do, it doesn’t work.

Q: You said that growers need to be careful as new technology comes around the bend, why is this?

A: I think that like anything in the world of technology, industry and businesses are constantly throwing things out there to be tried. Some things you don’t have to question, other things you think will work and they don’t, while still other things you think will never work, and they do.

The other thing is that there are a lot of really good growers around the country that these technologies may just not be suitable for given the economy. If you’re not big enough to justify this type of investment, that’s okay. Any grower needs to consider that just because it works for one grower doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. There are a lot of good growers that don’t use high-density systems because what they already do really works for them. It’s not a carte blanch, people do what works best for them.

Q: Can you tell me about your vision for the future of automated technology in orchards?

A: My realistic vision is that many more orchards are transformed into a higher-density system that can use this type of technology. I think that will be true for a lot of growers in our area and beyond.

I would like to say that one day there will be robots that will pick apples for us. From what I’ve seen, it is far more realistic to say that there will be technology that augments operations, than that the work will be done for us. Rose from the Jetsons probably won’t go out and pick apples for us any time soon.

As I look down the road, there is a cloud over us. As we look forward, we need to know how far we can go. You’re only growing fruit, no matter how good you grow it, it’s still only fruit. The best dollar you can get still only nets you a certain revenue and if the technology you’re looking for is beyond that, it’s out of your reach.

Q: What’s something that you wish you could tackle with automated technology that you can’t already?

A: Harvest. For us it would absolutely be harvest. There are others but that would be at the top of our list. That is the most labor intensive and costly operation that we do every year. I also see it as the most challenging without human involvement because when a person is in a tree and they’re spot picking, which is what most of our picking is, they’re going for size, color, and sorting out blemishes. There are so many things to take into consideration. Our hands are incredible tools, they can be soft and they can be strong, tough, and gentle, and when you go out and incorporate what your eyes see with what you’ve learned, you know certain things and those are the kinds of things that only the human brain can process at the speed that we’re able to work in the orchard.

Q: Why do you think some people are concerned about the use of automated technology in their orchards?

A: Because it’s different. Change is hard and change is expensive. It goes back to the risks that I’ve talked about. We assume and accept such a huge amount of risk that it’s scary when you sit down and think about what you’re doing. Because of the risks that we assume, when we look down the road at all of the dollar signs, it’s a lot to take in!

Different people need to evaluate the level of risk they’re comfortable taking on. There’s risk in everything that we do, but knowing what risk is right for you is the most important part.

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