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Working smarter, not harder

Industry Best Practice
  • Attract and retain workers
  • Quality gains outstrip harvest cost savings
  • Simple, accessible, consistent canopies essential

Securing labour was the headline issue, but Covid-19 proved a catalyst for fast tracking thinking on keeping it and using it more efficiently with the help of technology.

Tasmanian grower Shane Weeks was already convinced of the value a harvest platform could add to his orchard operation in higher quality and productivity before last year’s COVID-19 border closures turned the tap off on seasonal labour.

When they did, he went straight out and ordered two.

Shane Weeks (rt), Managing Director, Ayers Orchards, Spreyton, and Brett Squibb, RW Squibb & Sons are confident the platforms will pay their way in increased quality and efficiency. Photo: Jacqui Beven Photography.

For Shane, Managing Director at Spreyton-based Ayers Orchards, the inevitability of an increased reliance on inexperienced domestic labour – “the writing was on the wall, we saw it coming big time” – simply added the timeframe to the investment – right now.

Temporary asset write-off tax incentives were a bonus, but Shane said that the key motivation was making his Spreyton orchard a place people who had little experience of apple picking wanted to come to – and once there, stay put.

“If we want workers, we have to look after them,” Shane said after taking delivery of two REVO Piuma platforms just before starting harvest.  “It is hard work picking. These beginners, they still have to learn how to pick. If you hadn’t picked before and you had the choice of ladders and bags or standing on machine, what would you choose?

“A platform is a lot easier on the labour and it’s about safety. I’ve fallen off ladders hundreds of times and I don’t want that happening to others.”

Shane said removing the need to learn how to manage ladders and bags efficiently meant new pickers were also more productive sooner, stayed longer – reducing staff churn and employment admin and overheads – and the fruit they picked was better quality. The platforms could also be used to reduce labour for other orchard management tasks.

“It will do away with a lot of the bruising,” Shane said. “If they drop an apple onto the belt, it is just one, if it is into the bag it is four to five and it does away with the dropping into the bin.

“We would’ve liked to have them earlier to prune, but we can do that this coming season. We can take the picking sides off in 10—15 minutes and put a compressor on for pruning, we can use them for thinning and for harvest. We also have cherries and we can use them for putting on the permanent rain covers.

“The workers will be able to live on them,” he joked.  “We think they are going to be great.”

At $150,000, it’s a significant outlay, but one Shane is confident will be easily recovered in increased productivity and quality.

“If I can get on average five bins per person per day across the season, I’ll be happy,” he said. “It would pay off in 5—7 years.”

Catalyst for change

Shane’s experience reflects two of the key opportunities to emerge from the challenging Covid-19 year.

Perceived ‘labour-savings’ may have driven the early explosion of interest in technology as Covid-19–related labour shortages acted to fast-track innovation already in growers’ sights, but it has been labour retention, and improved fruit quality that emerged as the tangible harvest gains.

Photo: Jacqui Beven Photography.

With both backpacker and Seasonal Worker Programme numbers severely limited by the Covid-19 border restrictions, growers reliant on domestic, often inexperienced, workers, found themselves in the unnerving position of having to woo workers.

“It’s been the hardest year we’ve ever had,” says Shane’s neighbour Brett Squibb. “We’ve used Facebook, word of mouth and locals and paid $5-6/bin above the normal rate.”

Elsewhere growers provided accommodation, brought in and converted shipping containers, offered bin bonuses for those that stayed out the season or slabs of beer if they hit 10 bins/day.

“Everyone says ‘how much money does a platform save you?’,” Plunkett Orchards orchard manager Jason Shields said while demonstrating platforms and other orchard technology at the Goulburn Valley Future Orchards walk in March. “If you are just going into platforms to save money you are probably looking at it the wrong way.

“It is about how a platform is going to help me find labour, and once I find the labour, how is the platform going to make them more productive and keep them, to retain those staff throughout the whole season,” he said.

“If you just keep getting people turning up and picking two bins and leaving your farm, and then having to retrain and re-staff, that’s where the inefficiencies come in, you’ve got all these supervisors for no work.”

But Jason said there were efficiency gains to be had as platforms could turn a person who could pick two bins into one who could pick four, and also enable teams to pick at a consistent rate for the whole season.

Plunkett Orchards had moved to harvesting solely with platforms in 2019 and Jason said teams picking good quality, consistent Granny Smiths or varieties marketed as Pink Lady in an eight-hour day had averaged 5.2 bins/person/day for the season.

“People say, but that’s what a normal picker picks, but I’d say look at your whole year’s picking and tell me what the average per picker is. It might be closer 3—3.5.”

Treating workers right

Shane sees the platforms as complementing rather than totally replacing ladders and says skilled pickers will still likely prefer the reward for effort the piece rates system offers.

But he said the requirement to pay the horticultural award hourly rate to pickers on a platform did allow those starting out to earn a good day’s wage from day one and they might be more  encouraged to return than if they were paid piece rate for two to three bins a day while still learning.

“The industry is changing, really quickly,” Shane said. “I will still have people choosing to do piece work because they can earn an extra $50 plus a day. Those people come back every year and I don’t want to put them on a machine. You attract different people when you put them on the ground.”

 

Quality lift

While the removal of bags and ladders anecdotally helped to attract and retain workers, a more quantifiable benefit from the platforms is the reduction in bruising and stem punctures that promises to significantly improve fruit quality, packouts and returns.

Full time quality control oversight on the platform further ensures a lift in consistency.

“If you drop one apple in 20 into a bag and it hits 4—5 apples you have over 20 per cent bruising,” Jason said. “The conveyors and brushes are the best chance of having a perfect piece of fruit in the bin.

“Every single point of these machines is about fruit quality, it is about trying to take out any point an apple can touch another apple and cause an impact bruising, which is where most bruising comes from.”

Jason, who also acts as Australian agent for Italian manufacturer REVO, cited the experience of a shed manager who had recently bought a REVO platform.

“He said: ‘We were worried about how much we were going to save by buying a platform and we probably haven’t saved anything, our picking costs are still the same, but we are getting a 20 per cent better bin return for that bin of fruit. That is far better than any $5/bin you are going to save by cutting costs.’”

“Let’s stop thinking about how we are going to save and let’s start thinking of how much money this platform is going to make us,” Jason said.

Making money through better quality fruit also heightened interest this season in leaf blowers and trimmers and their ability to expose fruit to light and colour development without resorting to costly labour-consuming leaf-picking or pruning.

Plunkett Orchards orchard manager Jason Shields and consultant Nic Finger, Fruit Help, highlight the opportunities available from greater automation and how to prepare orchards to capture them in this overview of the key points from the recent Autumn Future Orchards® walk in the Goulburn Valley. Video: Mitch Barrett, MB Creative.

Agronomist Nic Finger, of Fruit Help, evaluated a Fruit Tec REDpulse Duo on a 60t/ha Perfect Pink (Pink Lady) block in the Goulburn Valley in 2020 and found that it doubled the proportion of fruit meeting 80+ per cent colour specification, increased the percentage of fruit harvested as colour pick by 85 per cent and increased the proportion of fruit graded in the packhouse as premium colour by 30 per cent (Figure 1).  Theoretical earnings per ha were increased by $6000/ha by defoliation relative to a no defoliation control.[1]

“Rather than spend $3000/ha on 100—150 hours/ha of leaf plucking we can drive through with the defoliator and one person can cover 3ha in a day,” Jason told attendees at the Future Orchards tech demonstration.

“You can have the supervisor who might look after 15 people driving the tractor and you can have your other staff focusing on harvest or jobs at hand.

“It’s the same at thinning and pruning time. It is about using the labour you have got the most efficiently you can.

“The focus of all these machines is the efficiencies that we can bring into the orchard.”

Canopies first

AgFirst figures presented at the Autumn Future Orchards® walks show the opportunity for greater efficiency in the relatively high dependence on labour in Australia and the competitive disadvantage it places Australian industry at when compared to overseas growers.

AgFirst found Australian growers are using 22 hours of labour for every tonne they produce compared to 12 hours/t in Italy.

Contributing to this are significantly higher labour inputs for management, pruning and thinning and other wages.

Craig said drivers in Italy included variety mix, no ladders, simple canopy systems with low vigour trees, higher yields, and extensive use of platforms for all labour tasks.

To lower labour demand and increase efficiency, Craig said the emphasis would need to be on systems comprising:

  • Consistent high yields of 80+t/ha at maturity
  • Simple, narrow, accessible, productive “SNAP” trees with less than 40cm canopy width
  • Calm trees, with less than 25cm annual extension
  • Exposed fruit for access, dry matter, size and colour
  • No ladders.

“There is talk about jumping at platforms but first we need to do the canopy, then the platforms,” he said.

Jason said making canopies easy to manage and consistent would be a key part of realising the future efficiencies offered by greater automation.

“Going forward we really need to be focusing on really easy efficient canopies,” Jason said.  “So that every single worker in every single level has the exact same job to do, the exact same number of apples to pick, the exact same number of apples to prune.

“All the things we are looking at like the trimmer, the leaf blower and the Darwin thinner are to come up with a system that makes things really, really easy going forward for the workers.”

 

 

 

[1] REDpulse Duo defoliation evaluation, Goulburn Valley, 2020. Nic Finger, Fruit Help.

 

 

 

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