Addressing Labor Shortages in the Northeast: A Mechanical Vegetable Harvester for Small and Mid-scale Farms

Progress report for FNE19-938

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2019: $14,978.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2021
Grant Recipient: Morgiewicz Produce
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Joseph Morgiewicz
Morgiewicz Produce Inc
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project’s purpose is to reduce the amount of labor and time it takes to pick vegetables. By reducing the labor requirement, workers will have more time to pick other crops that require more care and do other jobs around the farm like weeding, washing, and packing. The machine will be used full time once constructed and replace some of the work previously done by hand. Having this machine tested on our farm will show us how mechanization can be used in the future and the possibilities to replace difficult-to-find, skilled labor with easier jobs and equal employment opportunities. It won’t only show our farm, but our neighbors and fellow growers in the Northeast region who will be effected by our outreach as well. There are at least six other mixed vegetable farms with over 300 acres of muck soil each who are also interested in mechanizing fresh market vegetable harvest. The objective of this machine is to be an example of the future, a business venture, and a profitability booster while saving on labor.

Introduction:

My research has shown there are not many fresh market vegetable harvesters in the Northeast. The different types of machines that exist in other states are for crops like sweet corn, carrots, onions, potatoes, green beans, salad mixes, light herbs and a few for tomatoes. The machines that would be able to do multiple crops are mostly found in European Countries. Countries like Denmark, Netherlands, and Germany have companies that specialize in vegetable harvesters for specific crops. These companies don’t have a strong presence here in the United States yet. The machines need to be built in Europe and shipped to the states. This can be quite costly with all the freight and the cost of the machines themselves. Some examples of custom harvest equipment manufacturers are Asa-Lift, Grimme, Koppert Machines and Oxbo. Information on these harvesters can only be obtained by contacting the manufacturers. We have contacted two of the mentioned companies, because they make the machines we need. Oxbo is in the US, but specializes in sweet corn, beans, peas, grapes and berries. We don’t grow any of these crops so, Oxbo was not contacted by us. Asa-Lift is in Europe and makes the machines we would use. Our plans have similar functions to Asa-Lift machines because this technology works well with the crops we grow. The same principle is used, which is using two belts running alongside each other and pinching the crop between them. Asa-Lift also makes machines that will mount on the back of a tractor in the same way we want to build. This will make it easier to maneuver small fields, and will be powerful enough to overcome harsh inclines and muddy conditions. We have contacted Asa-Lift for information on dill harvesters and information about costs. The machine mounted to the 3-point hitch of a tractor, used the PTO for the hydraulic pump, and could be gentle enough to use on many of our crops. What stopped us from going further was the cost of the machine. A machine like this would cost over $160,000 for the machine alone. It does not include shipping or set up costs. For a large grower with over 200 acres of only dill production, it may be worth purchasing the machine. But for a smaller grower only looking to save money where they can, this would not be economically feasible.

Another company we contacted was Koppert Machines in the Netherlands and manufactures automated radish harvesters in addition to other specialty crop equipment. The difference between the machines is that, this will be specifically designed with gentle handling of the crop at top priority. It will also be designed for midsize commercial farms. The machine will be just large enough to keep up on the work load but small enough to fit in fields without a hassle. Many of the machines that exist are very large, bulky, and heavy. These characteristics are not ideal for our muck soils that dominate 26,000 acres of our area in Orange County, New York. However, other soil types in the Northeast also have problems with heavy equipment. large bulky equipment has been known to cause soil compaction. This affects plant growth because the sub soil layers are too hard for plant roots to break through and therefore limits growth. This reduces the sustainability of the soil to grow healthy plants for many years. The idea behind the machine is to reduce the amount of travel in the field with heavy trucks and picking equipment. So, this machine also needs to be light and have minimal effect on the field. The principles of operation for this machine are like those of a carrot harvester. We know that by running two belts side-by-side to sandwich a crop between them, we can achieve a way to pull the crop out of the field and carry it up the belt/conveyor and bring it to a platform. Here the workers will only be worried about bunching and separating out the unfavorable crops. Hydraulic parts are the most complex components of the entire machine, and they are cheap and easy to find here in the US. Steel would be used for the frame and most structural components because it is easy to weld and work with. It is also more durable than aluminum even though it’s light weight.

Description of farm operation:

Morgiewicz Produce is a commercial vegetable farm that grows over 100 varieties of vegetables on over 175 acres of muck soil in Goshen, NY. The farm is entering its 5th generation. From May to November, we operate at 11 weekly farmers market in Westchester, Bronx and Manhattan. We operate many markets with Grow NYC and Harvest Home programs. Our wholesale channels are mostly at Hunts Point Terminal Market in New York City and some wholesale in the immediate area of the farm.
Responsibilities for this project fall on me, Joseph Morgiewicz. I have graduated from the Heavy Equipment Mechanics program at OUBOCES CTEC during high school and I have graduated with my bachelor’s degree at Cornell University for Agricultural Science in the December of 2018. The construction of the prototype of this machine is proof that I can do it, especially since it works and does what it was designed to do.
The farm resource that will be dedicated to this project is the mechanics shop. her we do all necessary repairs for all of our trucks and farm equipment, as well as the fabrication of equipment that we need. Tools like welders, torches, plasma cutter, lathe and milling machine are all located in this building and have the ability to make what we need.
The technical advisor for this project, Ethan Grundberg, is a regional vegetable specialist with the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture program of Cornell Cooperative Extension. Grundberg has extensive experience both in conducting applied field research in vegetable production (including the NE SARE Partnership Grant ONE17-298) and with specialty crop equipment use and fabrication. In addition to serving as the lead mechanic for the Student Experimental Farm and Market Garden at the University of California, Davis for two years, Grundberg also managed a 40-acre commercial vegetable operation in Eastern Massachusetts for six seasons before joining extension. Grundberg works closely with the over 70 vegetable growers on muck soils in Orange County, NY and is excited about the possibility of supporting this effort to address the dual challenges of increasing harvest efficiency in a labor scarce environment and improving the economic sustainability of the small and mid-scale farms in the region.

Cooperators

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  • Ethan Grundberg - Technical Advisor (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

2019 Project year: Construction Planning

The first year of our project saw a delay in construction. Unfortunately, like most Farmers, the growing season is so short that we must make all cropping time count. This has taken away from our initial start on constructing the frame of the machine. Our original March start date also happened to be our planting and fieldwork start time this year. However, we still did research and modifications to the machine’s blue prints. We took care this year to gain more knowledge about other machines that work on the crops we want to harvest with this machine. We have also gained more motivation to build the machine due to the fact that New York State passed a law that requires farms to pay overtime this year at 60 hours per week. Harvesting our many varieties of crops is challenging enough so we have identified another reason to build this machine for our farm. That reason is the make our workers more efficient, as stated in the project introduction. 

Our research conducted included various types of hydraulic control systems and how they will work into the frame and mechanics of the machine. We have also decided to go with a single-row picking head design. That means the machine will harvest one row at a time. The reason behind this because we don’t want to overwhelm our workers with a massive amount of produce at one time on the machine. With only one row being harvested at a time, we hope that it will be more manageable to package, and hopefully the tractor powering the machine can go faster through the field. If we decide to add another picking head, the machine will be capable of adding another picking assembly later on. 

Also in our research we have been revising our steel selection. We want to select the strongest but lightest possible steel so that the weight of the overall equipment is low, but also strong enough to hold the weight. 

2020 Project Year:

As anyone knows, 2020 was not a regular year. The Corona Virus Pandemic put a grinding halt to millions of people’s plans, careers, and health. There were numerous obstacles this year that have not yet been overcome. However, we haven’t stopped working and planning on this project. 

Thousands of businesses across the country were forced to shut down or put restricted operating procedures in place. This made finding the correct parts and hardware difficult to begin construction. We were eventually able to purchase some of the steel needed for the picking head of the machine. Unfortunately we weren’t able to begin construction immediately because of or growing season which presented many other challenges to work with.

Thankfully our business wasn’t hit as hard as others. Farming always seems to have a place in the country because people have to eat. Many of our farmers markets, located mostly in New York City, served our customers vegetables just like any other year. Fresh and healthy food at an excellent price which always helps our low income and hardworking customers. The work load for our farm this year seemed to have increased. Despite all of the shut downs and health hazards, we managed to work harder to provide people with the food they needed. We had a steady supply of crops the entire season which was great, but it didn’t come without consequence. With all of our hardworking during the growing season, that left a deficit of time to work on this project. 

Overtime for agricultural workers in NYS was approved in 2019 for over 60 hours a week. I’m sure many farms struggled with overtime wages this year like we did. This is a seasonal operation, and we need to maximize the amount of time our workers have with us. But unfortunately we can’t afford to pay the over time wages for 75 hours a week, like the year prior. Many of our workers were capped at 60 hours because of this and that left a lot of work that had to be ignored or done sparingly. Harvesting crops took first priority and 85% of our farm is hand picked. We are hoping to great more time this coming year to work on this project so we don’t have to rely on everything being hand picked. The end goal is to save on labor and increase our worker’s comfort. 

For the 2021 season we are hoping to resume construction in a more meaningful capacity. We look forward to another year of planting and growing, and in the near future having a vegetable harvester to make our lives a little easier on the farm.

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research
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.