How D'Ya Like Them Apples?
America loves apples! In 2016, U.S. apple production was valued at more than $3.3 billion. Harvesting apples and handling them properly after harvest account for about half the crop's production costs. That's why apple growers are keeping an interested eye on an innovation from a team of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in East Lansing, MI.
ARS agricultural engineer Renfu Lu and his team from the Sugarbeet and Bean Research Unit held a successful field test and demonstration of their new and improved apple-harvest and in-field-sorting machine at a commercial orchard in Sparta, MI, last fall. Growers, industry leaders, packinghouse operators, extension specialists, and others attended the event.
In the past couple years, based on feedback from growers and other stakeholders, the team has made major improvements to the machine's original features, including a more efficient sorting system that can sort and grade the fruit at a rate of 10 to 12 apples per second. A special machine-vision system images and grades the apples and then sends them to specific bins.
The machine also features adjustable harvest platforms that can move up or down to position the orchard workers closer to the fruit. A new fruit-receiving mechanism enhances harvest productivity and worker ergonomics, and improved bin fillers handle the harvested fruit more gently and efficiently.
In some orchards, buckets and ladders are still the main equipment used in harvesting apples. In other orchards, harvest platforms are in use, but the automation is lacking. Lu hopes his team's innovations will make a labor-intensive job easier, faster, and safer—and increase the grower's bottom line, too. "In a well-managed, high-density, structured orchard, about 10 percent of the fruit is low quality and not suitable for the fresh market. If the machine is used for one full harvest season, the orchard owner could have gross savings of $34,000 in postharvest storage and packing by removing the defective or inferior fruit at harvest," says Lu.