Novel Vacuum Fruit Harvester

Final Report for FNC08-719

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2008: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Michael Rasch
Westridge Orchards
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Project Information

Summary:

FARM DESCRIPTION
– Fruit growing operation consisting of 90 acres of apples and 35 acres of cherries on dwarf and semi dwarf trees.
– Third generation family operation.
– Open ground of 20 acres row crop rotated with beans/corn.

PREVIOUS SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES
– Holding ponds for irrigation fed by drainage systems, and waterways and spring. Last 15 years.
– IPM used to monitor and control pests and diseases in fruit crops. Last 15 years.
– Established set-aside plots and border strips of summer grasses and native flowering shrubs and wildflowers to encourage native pollinators. Last 2 years.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
GOALS

Our unit would reduce many of the problems associated with our shrinking farm labor supply. Our project would have a social impact in any local community by allowing more local, less skilled labor to be hired and work safely during harvest periods, especially with the current unemployment and at times of little or no migrant labor supply. Also eliminating ladder work would lower insurance premiums required in farming operations. It would encourage new plantings designed for mechanically assisted harvesting which are more efficient with less input costs and total chemical usage; all of which reduce carbon footprint per acre.

PROCESS
We built up two working vacuum chambers based on previous work developing a prototype. We experimented with different types and diameters of padded hoses to convey fruit, and needed to keep fruit singulated at all times until deposited in box to eliminate bruising from contact. We needed to match power and vacuum supply components to allow us to convey fruit at both horizontal and vertical applications from ground and raised platforms. We also modified existing equipment to cut costs and tried other round firm fruits to test versatility; ex: oranges, peaches, Asian pears and pomegranates.

Questions asked were:
-How much more productive and efficient we are mechanically assisting harvesting fruit than conventional methods?
-How would this harvest system affect a fruit growing operations in;
1. Bottom line/profit
2. Payoff of system/years
3. Adaptability to existing equipment
We coordinated our research with MSU extension and educator personal field trials compared to conventional using same blocks, dates, conditions and varieties. Data collected and compared. Results were very encouraging with up to 50% less damage to fruit.

PEOPLE

• Phil Brown, Owner of Phil Brown Welding: Assisted with building machine
• Amy Irish Brown- Extension Agent with MSU Extension: Consulted and helped with support and writing proposal.
• Chuck Dietrich: Engineer and consultant
• Dr. Ron Perry- MSU: Consulted
• Joe Rasch- Fruit Grower: Assisted with field testing.
• Chuck Rasch- Fruit Grower: Assisted with field testing
• Denise Ruwersma- MSU Extension: Obtained samples for testing from field trials.
• Phil Schwailler- District Extension Agent with MSU Extension: Evaluated machine and obtained data from field tests to publish.

RESULTS
Data and field trials showed significantly less bruise damage when vacuum conveying system was used in side-by-side comparison with conventional hand-picked fruit from ground and ladder positions. Data was collected from three different varieties and/blocks of fruit using same dates, weather conditions and varieties picked as conventional hand and ladder harvested.

Samples were collected by MSU Extension personal and were evaluated according to their protocol methods. Results were better than we had hoped for. We hope to refine certain aspects of the overall system thru more Research and Development and other ideas presented after our initial prototype machine was developed and built.

Ideas include keeping fruit more singulated by developing a new style, more efficient vacuum decelerator chamber. We can also see a new design for the vacuum hose transporting the fruit as well as different ways to position the person(s) picking in different areas of the trees.

All told every new generation of this conveying concept can and will be improved to some degree all the while attaining more productivity, efficiency and profitability.

DISCUSSION
We learned from this grant that with the right incentive anyone can achieve their goals at least to some degree. And whatever areas of agricultural horticulture we are all involved with, we have one common goal; sustainable agricultural practices while at the same time maintaining profitability.

The barrier we overcame was to prove we could harvest fresh grade produce with a vacuum conveying system with as good if not better efficiency and quality control, ex. bruising.

If asked by other growers we could suggest attending future outreach field trials and using the system for themselves and seeing the results firsthand.

OUTREACH
USDA Specialty Crops Project Advisory Board personal Michigan State University Extension personal.
PROJECT: Internet links to farmers/growers calendar of events.
Field days included: 11/5/09 trial with growers and SARE representatives attending.
2/22/10 demonstration with approximately 350 international Dwarf Fruit Tree conference members.
All trial dates and demonstrations were open to local growers and MSU and PSU Extension educators and personnel.

Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.