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Automation, harvest assist, and more options to reduce labour load

Technology & Data

Rising chances of labour shortages next harvest have left growers in the lurch when it comes to picking their fruit.

Planning labour needs early and identifying as many orchard management and labour sourcing options as possible will be critical as growers navigate the lead up to harvest.

Next week’s Future Orchards Spring Walk series will canvas both orchard management options – including pruning, thinning and prioritising blocks – as well as a review of the labour supply outlook and steps industry might take to attract, retain and ensure the safety of our seasonal workforce.

APAL Industry Services & Export Manager Justin Smith said in the rapidly-changing pandemic environment, it would be important to identify what is within industry control and to take action.

“Having a clear understanding of the level and timing of your seasonal labour needs is critical,” he said.

“This year it needs to factor in transport, accommodation, separation of crews and similar efforts that can limit the risk of COVID-19 entering your property and keep your crews safe.”

A recent poll conducted by APAL found that 53 per cent of growers are ‘not confident’ of their chances of access to labour.

Advancing automation

The threat of a labour shortage has sharpened the focus on automation. Figures from Washington State University (WSU) estimate that labour costs per hectare have risen substantially globally in recent years and are an increasing proportion of direct growing costs.

Of course, significant entry costs, the need to have orchard systems suited to automation and the fact technology is still relatively new are the main barriers to consider when it comes to automation.

So what can growers do? Getting ready for the automated age is one action that can be taken – taking into account the requirements of mechanised pickers and designing new plantings to be compatible to their needs.

“Designing new plantings to be automation compatible is viewed as future proofing the orchard,” John Wilton of AgFirst wrote recently for APAL.

“With automation in mind, future orchard plantings will need to be on flat, or uniformly gently sloping land. Unless there is significant miniaturisation of robotic equipment, tree rows will need to be much intensively planted.”

John also believes however, that while automation might be the way of the future, it’s still a long way off being the norm – a lot longer away than this harvest or next, a view shared by Fruit Help’sNic Finger.

“I think they’re at least 10 years away from being in mainstream use,” Nic said.

“I think what we can do is become more efficient.”

While narrow canopies have been viewed as the best way of preparing for mechanisation, there has been queries over its ability to get enough light.

Some growers are producing wider canopies with trees that don’t have branches, instead opting for a multi-leader V system (two leaders up each side of a V). The advantages of this are that it not only embraces future change in automated picking to some extent, but it also requires much less training for pickers currently.

Nic recommends growing ‘narrow, simple fruiting units’ in order to best prepare for .

“Growing better quality fruit is one way to do this, getting better colour earlier will help save a pick.

“There’s quite a few defoliators that are around at the moment which may help with colour in some canopies

“But the main thing is being ready for the next phase and being labour efficient where we can and designing orchards with that in mind”.

What is available now?

While a utopic world of reliable automated pickers completing the entirety of an orchard’s harvest is still some years away, there are options growers can take up now.

Harvest assist products are technology that is available now, designed to help reduce the load on labour.

The Bandit Scout is a harvest-assist machine that is designed to make the ground picking process more efficient and productive by following pickers around the orchard, reducing the steps pickers need to take to empty picking bags thereby enabling them to spend more time picking. This can potentially

The Bandit Xpress is a self-propelled harvest assist and platform machine that eliminates the need for ladders. Its scissor-lift feature raises and lowers bins to the ground and the multiple levels enables picking at different heights. Estimates are that getting rid of ladders increases efficiency by 40 per cent. Designed to operate day and night, Stemilt used dozens of Bandit Xpress platforms to complete harvest before a forecasted cold snap ruined their fruit.

Stemilt is using aerial imagery in some of their orchards to guide work and improve the uniformity of their orchards. Parameters used are NDVI (vegetative index), water stress, thermal (canopy temperature), and chlorophyll classification. Potential benefits may also include: overhead cooling quality checks, identifying blocked sprinklers, troubleshooting high or low vigour areas, and matching fruit quality and yield to overhead imagery.

Of course, much of these options require a level of capital to get involved. However, given labour costs can be anywhere between 40 – 80per cent of a grower’s costs, the move towards mechanisation must be considered when looking at long term growth.

Read more

Think outside the box when it comes to sourcing labour, say labour service providers. 

Securing the seasonal workforce, state by state (Part 1)

Securing the seasonal workforce, state by state (Part 2)

agtech Labour / employment

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