By TIARA MAROCCO
Capital News Service
It is a crisp fall morning and the birds are chirping as you grab your coat, a wooden basket and a small ladder and head to the apple orchard.
Light greens, yellows and reds pop out from under the dark green leaves of the apple trees as you spot the perfect apple to add to your basket.
It is a popular fall activity. But it’s also work for commercial growers. And a new
apple-picking creation could make it a bit easier as orchard owners struggle with a declining workforce.
Apple picking usually requires fruit-pickers to stand on ladders to gather the apples. Handpicking is the most consistent and traditional way to gather apples.
“The majority of the apple crop is picked by hand,” Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, said in a news release regarding industry labor shortages. “This requires a skilled workforce to get this done in a timely fashion. The apples can’t stay on the trees forever.”
Now the Phil Brown Welding Corp. has created a machine to replace those wooden ladders. The machine has a platform where four workers stand to gather apples at the same time. Each worker is placed in front of a tree, picking and putting the apples into foam-lined pails connected to a vacuum-like tube where the apples gently fall into a large, wooden bin. Everything, including the bin, is all connected to the hydraulically-operated machine as it crawls between the rows of apple trees.
“The machine is designed to be safer for the apple-pickers,” said Phil Brown, the founder and owner of the Conklin, Mich. welding company. “It gives the pickers the ability to gather more apples at a time together.”
Brown, the son of a fruit farmer, founded the welding company when he was 18 years old with one goal in mind: To make his job and others like it easier and safer.
This new machine is not yet on the market but only used for testing. Only three prototypes have been made. Two are used at the respective agricultural departments of Penn State University and Washington State University.
The mostly recently built machine is in Michigan under the supervision of Riveridge Produce Inc., a production company of nine family apple farmers in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Brown says that he is hoping to make his patented apple-picking machine available in 2014. He estimated the cost at around $150,000.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Jan. 20 to clarify that Diane Smith’s comments were from a news release addressing labor shortages in general and that she did not comment on the cost of the machine.
Tiara Marocco is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo
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Video of apple harvester