Moving to Orchard Mechanization Is Tough, But Necessary

Reading this month’s cover story on the move to mechanize the apple industry, I couldn’t help but think of the irony that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.


The state Legislature established the commission in 1969 to “promote and carry on research and administer specific industry service programs, including but not limited to sanitation programs, which will or may benefit the planting, production, harvesting, handling, processing, or shipment of tree fruit of this state, which shall collect assessments on tree fruit in this state and which shall coordinate its research efforts with those of other state, federal, or private agencies doing similar research.”

While sanitation was a real concern for the burgeoning industry, in part because exports were becoming a very big deal, the commission’s overarching goal was the eventual mechanization of many orchard tasks, including harvest.

Efficiency was on the minds of some of the legendary growers who helped launch the commission, such as Grady Auvil and Tom Mathison. That’s what the commission’s first director, George Ing, who held the post for 30 years, told me back in 2004.

During that year we published a special issue commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Washington State Horticultural Association, which later morphed with some other agencies into the current Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

I got a kick out of Ing, a master storyteller who died just a year after I interviewed him for that commemorative issue. Among other things, he told me that of all his achievements, he was most proud of the fact he picked more than a ton of sweet cherries one day in 1956, and then matched the feat the following day.

In talking about his time leading the commission, it was clear Ing thought they should have made more progress in mechanizing the industry. We mainly discussed the technological hurdles that day, hurdles that certainly remain. For example, consider the struggles engineers have had through the years trying to replicate the human hand.

But just a quick perusal of this month’s cover story shows technology is only a part of the answer. There is also the fact that fruit picking in general, and apple picking in particular, is highly specific. That means a machine constructed for the purpose will likely have a highly specific target market. It’s tough for entrepreneurs to get excited about a market so small.

For this reason, a lot of industry experts think that some early mechanical harvesters will be operated by harvesting companies, as only the largest growers will be able to afford the capital outlay for such an expensive machine that sits idle most of the year.

But beyond those two huge obstacles, advanced technology and large capital outlay, there is yet another that the engineers quoted in our cover story touch on: human nature. Most people simply don’t like change. And if that change comes in a form that workers think will take their livelihoods away, of course they will rebel. Training, education, is critical.

As a grower, you likely can’t help with the pace of technology, or the financial arrangements that will be needed to make the highly expensive machines affordable to use, but you can do something about your workers. They need to know they’re not going to be replaced, but their jobs will change, just like how the nature of most jobs will change in the coming years.