For years, the mantra has been that we need to mechanize as much of the production process as possible, and particularly at harvest, because the labor situation is precarious at best.
A recent example is Grimmway Farms in California, which is conducting trials with robots from Harvest Automation, moving potted plants into the field to grow and then retrieving them at the end of the season for harvesting. American Vegetable Grower® magazine (AVG) reported on the work Grimmway was doing in October 2015.
Among many things, one goal of the farm was to reduce its reliance on labor.
So what are your mechanization options? In addition to the work being done by farms such as Grimmway, AVG got some insight into how a couple of others are striving to save labor and streamline the harvesting process and what an equipment manufacturer says may be on the horizon.
Increase Quality, Speed, And Reduce Labor
For Jim Paarlberg of Paarlberg Farms in Indiana, the overall goal has been to turn in quality loads to the tomato processor.
Paarlberg, who has been growing 400 acres of tomatoes for Elwood, IN-based Red Gold Premium Tomatoes for more than 30 years, says a couple of years ago he opted to have electronic double sorters added to his Pik Rite tomato harvesters.
“The double sorters have been a game-changer for us,” he says. “The laborsavings is huge and you are delivering the product that your cannery needs you to deliver.”
How Sorters Work
In Paarlsberg’s new setup, the entire tomato plant is brought into the harvester, which is retrofitted with a double sorter from Odenberg, and two rotating brushes help to gently shake the plant to remove the tomatoes. The vines continue onto the ground and get chopped up, and the tomatoes are conveyed over a blower to remove leaves, and dropped in front of the sorter’s electronic eye.
The job of the eye is to recognize size (so it can reject objects larger than what is specified) as well as color.
“You can set it to only accept red, so green, yellow, and even dirt clods get rejected,” Paarlberg explains.
As the sorting process continues, the tomato free falls from a conveyor about an inch away from an electronic “finger” that is about 3/4 of an inch wide. The finger will push the tomato out of the flow and drop it onto the ground if it is rejected. If it is accepted, the fruit falls back onto the conveyor.
“We can have a third off-color and green [tomatoes] coming into the harvester, and the sorters will keep that number to under 5%,” Paarlberg says. A second sorter helps to ensure a clean crop, he adds.
Quality isn’t the only thing Paarlberg is able to increase in the harvesting process. Now, he can load a 22.5-ton semitrailer in 30 to 40 minutes, depending on conditions, quality, and yield. Before using the double sorters, it could take an hour or more to load a semitrailer.
“In certain conditions, if we had a lot of green and off-color tomatoes, we tried to try to clean that up by hand,” Paarlberg recalls. “If we had additional adverse conditions to deal with, it took even longer to finish the load.”
In addition to providing the tomato cannery with a quality product, Paarlberg says he has reduced the number of workers on the crew by five. Other growers have reduced labor crews even further, but he says his farm needs additional people because the sorter’s electronic fingers are moving the tomatoes faster than just a couple of people can grab.
At the end of the day, in addition to saving on labor, he says the farm will be rewarded on price for delivering a high-quality product.