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How is the rise of platforms changing the orchard workplace?

Technology & Data
  • Will technology replace traditional labour?  
  • What is the return on investment for the early adoption of AgTech among growers?  
  • And how should we measure the success of innovation and evaluation and prepare for technology in the orchard? 

Platforms are showing themselves to allow a broader pool of labour – offsetting ongoing labour issues – and some safety and quality benefits, but it is a big financial investment for growers to commit to. 

Our AFG article ‘Working Smarter, Not Harder’ presented the different ways of assessing efficiency on platforms and return on investment for the long-term use of these labour-assist tools. Interviews with Jason Shields, Plunkett Orchards, and Shane Weeks, Ayers Orchards, showed promising successes in the adoption of platforms and sustainable labour solutions in the pandemic.  

With the last harvest season behind us, we can look ahead with new grower insights about the use of platforms in orchards throughout Australia. 

Andrew Smith, R&R Smith, Tasmania

For Andrew Smith, the REVO Piuma platforms in his orchard are “another tool in the bag”, and a very welcome one this past picking season – so much so that he has another two platforms on the way. 

“There were two driving factors for us,” Andrew said. “One is the reduction we’re all suffering in available workforce, the second is the pressure on working OH&S and the piece rate. Ladders need a motivated workforce to get this same kind of efficiency and quality. The platform is very user-friendly. It’s self-driving, self-levelling, very good on the fruit, with less bruising and fewer leaves and stalks in the bin.” 

While it is still early days for these platforms in Andrew’s orchards, he is predicting even greater usefulness going forward, both during and between harvest seasons. 

“We are still mastering the correct way to maximise the machines, as it’s a very different process to ladders and bags. We can probably get around 80-100 bins a day off those four machines, depending on how good the pickers are. It’s also exciting that now we’ll get them into the orchards for pruning and thinning.”  

The mixed terrain and slopes of the Huon Valley were the biggest concern going in. 

“We’ve got more undulating terrain in the valley and Tasmania, but at the moment we’re not running into any issues,” Andrew said. “The machines are coming from Italy where the terrain is also not completely flat, so the platforms are well-designed and well-manufactured to cater for areas around the world.” 

Andrew sees the future of his orchard labour as a hybrid model. 

“I think this method of picking fruit is ultimately a transition to robotics,” Andrew said. “In the end, we’ll probably utilise all three: robotics, picker-assist and traditional. And there’ll probably still be some of the workforce that prefer to use picking bag and ladder.” 

Rob Green, Oakleigh Orchards, SA  

Rob Green took more of a DIY approach to finding the perfect platform for his orchard. 

“I couldn’t find anything locally, but I had an idea and some design concepts and had someone make the shell of it,” Rob said. “I did the electronics and hydraulics and started using it about 4-5 years ago. It’s done nearly 3000 hours, and is actually the most used machinery on the farm, which is something I didn’t expect when I built it. I didn’t realise how useful it would be.” 

Robert’s platform is used for pruning, thinning tree-training and net maintenance and renewal, and perfectly suits his terrain. 

“The slopes here in the Adelaide Hills would be limiting for wheel-driven platforms, so ours is mounted on excavator tracks, making it safer to use in even the really bad weather conditions,” Rob said. “It has helped with our re-netting program – replacing and installing hail netting damaged by the bushfires.” 

Having experienced the success of this platform over the years, Robert is interested in exploring the picking platforms for harvest. 

“We’re still using ladders and bags at this time, because I think there are a few issues to work out with platforms before we go down that path,” Rob said. “The benefits are in allowing a wider group of people to be able to work productively in your orchard. They could be older or less able-bodied, or they might tire easily with ladder picking. For some people it might be attractive to not have to be using your ladder. Workers might look for orchards with these platforms to work on, as a place of preference.”  

Ian Cathels, Ardrossan Orchards, NSW

Batlow is hilly country, so introducing picking platforms onto the slopes of Ardrossan Orchards was always going to involve an extra learning curve for Ian Cathels and his team. 

“We used our platforms this past harvest, and it was a good trial-and-error experience, especially with regards to where we could use them and where we couldn’t,” Ian said. “For the first time we had to use tools to judge the gradient of the ground that we had never brought into the operation before. These were some of the first in the district.” 

While the platform cannot be used on most of the orchard terrain and it has not yet been used for additional pruning and thinning work, Ian feels that the benefits from where the harvesting platform was used have been incredibly valuable. 

“It opens up a different area of labour, utilise a wider group of people, and it just adds more availability of pickers” Ian said. “It cuts down on your supervision, too. You can leave a group just working away on their own. We plan to use it into the future along with traditional picking, and other growers have come by to see it and they’re definitely interested.” 

Mathew Fox, RK & J Fox & Son, WA

Mathew has purchased the REVO picking platform for the upcoming harvest season, and is optimistic about the labour benefits. 

“For us, it’s a lot to do with the demographic of staff,” Mathew said. “We have a larger pool of eager workers who do need that extra help, or couldn’t manage the traditional picking as efficiently. 

“It also keeps everyone motivated to work as a team. They’re working together on the platform, and trying to keep up with the machine. I think we’ll get more out of our workers.” 

Although the platform is being imported from overseas, Mathew has repair and spare parts support from the dealer in Perth. From his research and talking to other growers, he is confident that the user-friendly aspects of the platform will make it a fairly easy learning experience as he adapts to use in the orchard. 

“Every orchard’s different, so it really depends on what your aim is,” Mathew says. “We’ll find out how it manages the terrain and layout, figure out what changes we might need to make, and we should be able to get the most out of it.” 

Matthew Griggs, Lucaston Park Orchards, Tasmania

Not all growers see the need to introduce picking platforms on their orchards. For Matthew Griggs, questions of cost reduction and labour efficiency have not yet made platforms the better option. 

“Consensus among a number of growers I’ve talked to is that platforms aren’t resulting in more bins per day,” Matthew said. “Plus, because you pay an hourly rate on platforms, you also have to take into account the time when people aren’t actually picking, like when the bins need to be changed, or when it’s only reaching certain areas so only four out of five people are picking.” 

Matthew has found better success for the apple and cherry orchards with the use of seasonal workers and traditional handpicking. 

“The picking platform does widen the pool of potential staff but having the right people with the right attitude picking on ladders has been very efficient for our rate of harvest,” Matthew said. “We’ve got access to good people through the Pacific Islander worker program, and we didn’t have any labour issues this past season.”  

For now, Matthew will just use the orchard’s elevated work platform for pruning and thinning rather than investing in a new picking platform. 

“Until we have the orchard architecture right, I don’t see it as a necessary step forward,” Matthew said. “I’ll let it develop. Our system works well for us.” 

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