Mechanical apple harvesting could be the key to improving your apple yields. And in an era of labor shortages, harvest machines may be the key to keeping your orchard solvent. However, no matter how efficient the picking is, if the rest of the operation doesn’t keep up, this will be to no avail. To take full advantage of mechanical harvest machines,  farmers must be able to quickly move apples to packing houses without bruising or otherwise damaging the fruit.

Harvester machines have come a long way in recent years, and while fully-automated apple pickers are beginning to surface, there are plenty of labor saving options that can boost productivity and limit worker fatigue. For instance:

  • Harvesters with conveyor tracks allow pickers to place apples directly onto the padded conveyors. These conveyors then move fruit into a rotating harvest bin, gently easing it down into the container along a controlled chute, to avoid damaging the fruit.
  • Vacuum apple harvesters move fruit from the tree into harvest bins by means of protective, foam-lined vacuum lines. Just above the bin, the units slow apple trajectory with foam-lined pockets, then drop them through a padded distributor wheel to avoid bruising.
  • Cider-apple growers, who have more latitude when it comes to visual blemishes on their fruit, may use a combination of tree shakers and ground harvesters to pick up and accumulate apples in harvest bins.

Each of these harvest machines can fill storage bins quickly while reducing  worker fatigue in comparison to purely manual harvests. But this presents a new challenge: How can farmers move bulk bins from the field to the packing house once they’re full? The longer fruit stays in the sun, the quicker spoilage will occur, so the quick transportation of loaded harvest bins is more than just a logistical issue.

Here are a few ideas to keep loaded bins moving, allowing farmers to take full advantage of the productivity boosts that come with mechanical apple harvesting:

  • Establish pre-planned routes between the field and the packing house.
    Clear, consistent paths to refrigerated packing houses ensure that staff can safely and quickly move produce to the next stage of its journey to the consumer.
  • Use tractors or industrial trucks to transport loaded harvest bins.
    Bulk bins are typically designed to be handled by forks; a fleet of tractors or similar industrial trucks fitted with lift forks which will allow farmers to keep a steady stream of traffic moving to and from the packing house.
  • Reduce loading and unloading cycles to a single touch.
    Every movement of a bin of apples increases the opportunity for damage, and therefore substituting out handling equipment will inevitably lead to delays. Therefore the solution is to fit industrial trucks with Forward Bin Tippers, which are fork attachments that can lift, carry, and empty commercial harvest bins without the need for other machines.

As the availability of labour drastically reduces, the need for an increase in harvest machines to combat this issue has been highlighted by Farmer trade groups.  Mark Powers stresses this; “We don’t see some miraculous new source of labor appearing on the horizon…We think labor will continue to be a scarce resource.”

In order to prevent any impact from labour shortages, farmers need to make use of the right equipment and require a good mechanical apple harvesting strategy. Growers can fill demand even with this shrinking pool of available workers.