With harvest in full swing, if not already completed in some regions and for some varieties, it’s timely to look at how orchardists can reduce their labour costs and look at some interesting machines from Europe that can help.
A rise in orchard production costs around the world has had a major influence on the development of solutions to increase profitability in horticulture. Labour costs are a big part of this and have had a major effect on financial performance in orchards.
Research has shown that in an average European orchard, labour costs make up 43 per cent of all costs and 54 per cent of labour is committed to harvest-related costs. In Australia, labour costs as a proportion of the total are even higher. In Australia, 60 per cent of on-orchard total costs are labour, with 32 per cent of the total labour bill being harvest related. The pressure during harvest season to pick fruit within a relatively short window is leading to new developments in harvesting mechanisation to reduce pressure on growers during peak season.
The pressure during harvest season to pick fruit within a relatively short window is leading to new developments in harvesting mechanisation to reduce pressure on growers during peak season.
One of the key reasons for this is that average wages have been increasing while at the same time orchard income has been stable at best. Staff retention can be key for a successful harvest season, with the ability to rely on trained and motivated staff ensuring a smoother harvest.
Unfortunately, in most cases, harvest teams change almost completely from year to year except for key permanent managerial staff.
Saving labour during harvest
Generally, the biggest way to save the most amount of labour is by reducing the work load of each single picker. The biggest constraint in lifting picker performance is that each person tires considerably over the course of a work day when they carry heavy loads such as picking bags. Therefore, some of the solutions discussed in this article concentrate on eliminated the heavy lifting, by picking fruit directly into bins or onto conveyor belts.
If picking bags are used for harvesting it is essential to have well maintained equipment that is ergonomically designed. Pickers are carrying heavy weights for at least eight hours a day so an effort must be made to eliminate pain or unnecessary fatigue.
Different tree structures could also be considered to reduce labour costs. Any form of fruit wall is likely to reduce labour costs due to the lack of tree depth. Harvesting is simpler and therefore faster because of reduced tree size and easier to reach fruit.
Canopy design and its effect on harvesting needs to be considered when designing a new orchard. Whatever canopy type you have, harvest will always be smoother and faster if the orchard is tidy at the start of the harvest. Minimum distraction from the harvest in a clean and tidy orchard will increase productivity.
Recent developments in Europe show a widespread approach to harvesting mechanisation with a variety of solutions in use to create a smoother harvest of fruit. Mechanisation can be an excellent tool to lift productivity and there are some interesting products available in North America and Europe. The drive to mechanisation has come from a lack of motivated labour, rising labour costs and the benefits of reduced harvesting costs through increased productivity.
Before investing in mechanisation its costs and benefits need to be carefully analysed for each specific situation. For example, harvest labourers in several European countries (where some of the machines discussed in this article are from) are not paid on a per piece basis but rather are being paid an hourly rate. Therefore, a reduction in harvest time automatically means a reduction in cost. If workers are paid on a per piece basis the time reduction factor becomes less important.
The original idea behind the bin trolley for harvest is to allow the picker to individually move the bin along the row they are working without having to rely on a tractor driver. This was a very simple solution and the original bin trolley was a simple device that had to be dragged by the picker.
However, with uneven terrain or orchards on a slope this proved to be too hard for just one person and picking performance and the elimination of worker fatigue could not be achieved. Subsequently the bin trolleys got fitted with an electric engine to improve the efficiency of these devices.
Several models have been on the market and have been slightly modified and improved over the years. For example, the tyres have been placed to have the identical width as tractor tyres, and the engines that are fitted on these devices have become stronger and allow a fully loaded bin trolley to climb slopes of up to 33 degrees.
The latest development are bin trolleys that are remote controlled and GPS supported. These can transport the bin to a central collection point in the orchard.
The bin trolley Windegger NEO-SAT can unload a full bin, load an empty bin and drive back to the last location in the orchard. The transport of bins is powered by a petrol engine and it is possible to switch to a quiet electric engine while picking.
The harvest trailer is a development of the ‘harvest train’, where a tractor drags four to six wagons. Wagons are bins on a one-axis platform with pickers walking alongside the train and picking fruit directly into bins. The idea behind this system is the elimination of the picking bag from the harvesting process allowing the picker to keep a continuous speed over the day.
The harvest trailer originates from Austria and is a one-axis trailer with four bins dragged by a tractor. Data collected in Austria shows that the amount of fruit picked by each person per hour increased around 25 per cent compared to conventional picking.
Two bins at the front of the tractor are almost on ground level, while the third bin is slightly higher and sits above the wheels. The last bin is higher up again and has steps on each site for the pickers. A group of pickers works on each side of the tractor picking fruit directly into the bins without picking bags.
While these have had some uptake on smaller orchards in Europe, this system might only be suitable for smaller orchards and not larger commercial operations.
There is a wide range of harvesting platforms on the market supplied by several companies across Europe. The simplest versions of harvesting platforms are constructions built on top of tractors to enable pickers to pick the top of trees. These are very static structures often equipped with a remote drive so that the tractor driver can also be used as picker. The possibilities for harvest are limited and this version is therefore more suited to non-harvest work like pruning or thinning. A further improvement of this version is the remote-driven trailer platform which is dragged by a tractor and is more versatile but still not as versatile as height-adjustable picking platforms.
These new platforms are offered from a wide range of suppliers and vary in price. The most advanced models have a height-adjustable platform propelled by either a conventional diesel engine or an electric motor.
For those with an electric motor, the batteries normally require charging every two to four days during harvest. If the platform is used for work that requires driving long distances all day, then the batteries may have to be charged daily. Nevertheless, growers and orchard workers seem to appreciate the electric motors because they are quieter and have no fumes.
The use of these platforms is not limited to harvesting, they are designed to create value for the grower throughout the year. The most advanced models are built to create the highest possible mobility with features including the option to tilt the platform by up to 45 degrees or two steering axes that allow manoeuvring on limited space.
The workers stand on the platform, which travels at a set speed, and the pickers either pick fruit directly into the bin or into picking crates in front of them that are regularly emptied into a bin. Once the bin is full, a stacker at the rear of the platform will lower the bin to the ground. The most popular self-propelled picking platforms in Europe weigh 1,300 – 2,000kg and are designed for four workers. The most popular models can reach speeds of up to 8kph and have platforms that can be lifted up to a height of 2.8 meters.
A significant number of orchards in Europe are covered by hail netting that needs to be removed in winter because of snow and these machines are also used for installing or removing hail-nets.
Fruit picking machines
Fruit picking machines are self-propelled machines where four to six pickers pick fruit onto conveyor belts that are transported to a bin at the rear of the machine. The fruit is dropped slowly into the bin which is then lowered onto the ground by a stacker.
Research has shown that harvesting time can be reduced by 30 per cent when these machines are used. However, the orchard should be uniform in yield and missing trees can reduce the efficiency of these machines. The speed is set and if one worker can’t pick fruit because of missing trees or insufficient apples on the tree this means one person is not working efficiently.
Additional research has shown that the hourly pick rate of each individual picker decreases with the addition of more pickers to the machine. In optimal circumstances, each picker at the machine should pick around 300 to 350 kg per hour.
Modern fruit picking machines are designed for all terrain and can therefore be used in any orchard. Financial analysis has shown that the smaller version is suitable for orchards with a minimum of seven to nine hectares, the larger version for a minimum of 8 and up to 13 ha.
The problem is how to get enough value out of these machines if they are used only once a year for harvest. There are machines on the market which are essentially a combination of a self-propelled platform and a fruit picking machine. The conveyor belts, the stacker and the fruit drop tube are only installed during harvest season. Throughout the rest of the year this equipment is removed and the platform is used for pruning, thinning and other orchard work. This is by far the most expensive variation but is also the one with most benefits over the whole year.
Quality incentive picking
Technology is certainly one way that can create value to the orchardist by reducing harvesting costs. But it is also worthwhile to analyse what the different goals are of all the people involved with apple harvesting. Growers for instance want minimum cost and maximum quality/attention to detail from pickers. Pickers on the contrary want maximum income, while keeping an eye on detail/quality is not their top priority. If the fruit from the orchard is of better quality and a higher packout can be achieved this would increase income whilst leaving costs on the same level.
The target therefore has to be on how to lift fruit quality at harvest. One tool can be to create an incentive to pick fruit of better quality, and this can be achieved by paying a premium for those bins that are of better quality. On the contrary bins with lower than average quality could have a deduction. It pays to have formal system in place that can be easily managed by the quality controller in the orchard.
However you look at harvest, there are several ways of cutting costs, and lifting productivity or fruit quality. Mechanisation can be a useful tool if the size and design of the orchard are suited to it. Easing physical labour will always lift productivity as research has shown. Staff management, a tidy orchard and canopy and picking incentives can also be useful tools to increase picker performance.
Before making any decision on harvest management it is a good idea to analyse previous harvest seasons, analyse any problems you might have had, clearly outline goals and targets and define your budget.
This project has been funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited using the research and development apple and pear levy and funds from the Australian Government.