Mechanized harvesting of fruit, nut, and vegetable crops is a reality, but it does come with its drawbacks. The price tag on commercial harvesting machinery can put it out of reach for many growers, particularly those who don’t have enough of one crop to warrant an investment in specialized equipment.

“Harvesting is probably the other most critical labor requirement,” John Wilhoit, Extension Associate Professor, Specialty Crop Mechanization, at the University of Kentucky, said. “For fruit production, there is an increasing movement toward expensive, sophisticated, even robotic equipment in very large-scale orchard production areas like Washington state and Pennsylvania.”

Large commercial growers might be wise to invest in crop-specific specialty harvesting equipment, getting the crop harvested with a fraction of the hand labor that would be needed otherwise. But even then, there are complications. Harvesters may be suited only for use on certain varieties of blueberries, for example, due to growth habits. Or they may be meant only for the harvesting of processing grade produce, due to the potential damage incurred with mechanized picking. Perhaps the crop must be grown or pruned in a certain, precise manner in order for effective harvesting, making it hard for established orchards – or produce growers with an established bed system – to adapt.

Even if large commercial harvesters aren’t relatively necessary for your operation, hand harvesting requires time and labor resources, both of which are often in short supply. But sacrificing produce due to lack of harvesting ability is something no one wants.

So what are some of the harvesting equipment options for growers operating in the small to mid-range scale? Is there scale-appropriate harvesting equipment that makes the job more efficient, while still being affordable? What factors impact the decision to invest in mechanized harvesting equipment?

Wilhoit advised farmers to consider that a crop with a one-time harvest window and a crop with a sustained harvest period are influenced by different labor considerations. For a one-time harvest, the ability to gather a large crew for a few days is a factor. For continually harvested crops, it can be hard to justify daily, ongoing labor costs for small daily harvests. But if it is a high value product, the cost of mechanized harvesting equipment might be justified.

“For smaller scale production of fruit and vegetables, there is often a direct trade-off or substitution between equipment and labor, both in terms of costs and in being able to reliably produce the crop,” he said. “On a smaller scale, it can be challenging to have that labor when needed without having the extra cost of having to pay them (workers) when you really don’t need them.”

A covered wagon keeps freshly harvested crops cool in the field.PHOTO COURTESY OF TIANNA DUPONT.

Mechanical harvesters, scaled down

There are small-scale harvesters available for certain crops. Potatoes, onions and other root crops can be mechanically harvested with options from Spedo. These range from basic models such as the one designed to attach to a two-wheeled walk-behind tractor, to those which readily attach to small tractors with a three3-point hitch. More elaborate “junior” models even include an elevator with a conveyor belt to allow the crop to be sorted and loaded into bins during the harvesting process. See http://www.spedo.it/4/potato_digger_2289809.html.

Another company with small-scale equipment, including harvesters, is Willsie Equipment Sales, based in Canada. The three-point hitch potato digger, which comes with a special blade for carrots, can be used for garlic, sweet potatoes and nursery crops as well. See http://www.willsie.com.

Oxbo’s Pixall BH100 is a small-scale green bean harvester. It is tractor-mounted, and rides over the rows picking fresh market green beans, cleaning them, then sending them, via conveyor, to a rear platform for packaging. Even smaller growers feel the impact of the labor lessened when freed from the intensive hand-harvesting required for green beans. This equipment is scaled so growers with a minimum of five acres of green beans can benefit.

Tow-behind harvesters are also available from Oxbo for berry crops. The Korvan 930 is suitable for fresh-market blueberries, gently removing them from the bushes with slow-spinning blades, then cleaning and packing the blueberries in totes. It is also suitable for aronia berries, saskatoons, and other small fruit harvesting. See http://www.oxbocorp.com/Home.aspx.

For small nut growers, the Bag-A-Nut sweeper is a walk-behind harvester, which picks the nuts up from the ground. With a removable basket, or a dump basket, the collected nuts are easily transferred into bins. The Bag-A-Nut also offers pull-behind models for small tractors. See http://baganut.com/how-it-works/.

Sutton Ag (http://www.suttonag.com/) offers a line of harvesters designed for smaller operations. Their line is geared towards harvesting high-value baby greens of all types. While the Ortomec Series 2000 Harvester is pulled behind a small tractor, they also offer the Harvest Star Mini-Harvester, a walk-behind baby greens harvester, with an option for a sickle bar head, for woody-stemmed crops, or a band blade for leafy greens.

Mike Brownback, of Spiral Path Farm, in Loysville, Pennsylvania, sells certified organic vegetables to Wegmans, and operates a 220-member CSA. They grow 270 acres of vegetables. Brownback uses a salad harvester for baby greens, which grow in a high tunnel. The salad harvester has made growing this high-value crop more efficient and more sanitary.

The harvesting conveyor belt at Spiral Path Farm allows crops to be picked, put in bins, washed, and transported to storage quickly and efficiently without heavy lifting. These are green onions.PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDY ANDREWS.

“You don’t need eight or 10 guys to harvest, and you aren’t touching them,” he said. For his operation, the approximate $20,000 price tag was worth it due to saved labor costs, as well as food safety issues.

Harvesting aids

Most relevant for small growers seeking to increase the efficiency of their harvest without a lot of equipment investment, harvesting aids range from conveyor belts, to harvest boxes and covered trailers, all designed to bring the harvest in with the least effort and the highest crop quality.

The 100 Series EasyPick Harvest Assistant, by Nabers Equipment, offers smaller growers a multi-purpose machine to reduce labor needs. This machine enables has platforms for harvesters, and is towed behind the tractor. Workers lie prone on the platforms to harvest crops including strawberries, asparagus, green beans and cucumbers. It can also be utilized for planting and weeding purposes. See http://www.nabersequipment.com/4.html.

Minimizing problems when hauling crops out of the field means better efficiency, and less product loss, Tianna Dupont, Sustainable Agriculture Educator with Penn State Extension, said. Harvesting conveyor belts, pallet jacks and rollers may not do the harvesting for you, but they help absolutely simplify the process.

A conveyor belt, which brings the harvest from the field row to the wagon, costs around $1,200, and is an example of mechanization, which has helped Spiral Path farm to be efficient, worker-friendly and food-safety compliant, Brownback said. The conveyor belt allows the crop to quickly be moved from field to wagon, and packed in large bins. The produce can more quickly be moved out of the field, where it can be properly washed, pre-cooled and stored for optimum quality and safety.

Brownback also uses a conveyor belt shower system to hydro-cool the bins of produce, removing field heat. Bins are then moved via forklift into the packing house or coolers. Workers are spared heavy lifting and, enjoy their jobs more; meanwhile, and the cost of the equipment is readily covered by a reduction in labor costs, as well as increased crop quality.

“I think that investing in things that help post-harvest, like low-cost cold storage, and that are useful throughout the growing season, are probably better investments than actual harvesting equipment for the small grower,” Wilhoit said.

The type of harvesting basket or tubs that are used for picking can also impact both labor costs and food quality. Picking while wearing gloves is a safety measure, and prevents scratches and dings on the crop. Keeping produce off of the ground by picking directly into harvest containers, as well as minimizing the handling of product cut back on time and damage.

“Food safety and quality go together a lot,” Dupont said. “Don’t overfill containers. Keep containers off the ground,” to avoid dirt issues when “stacking them. Think about the way you pick. Pick in the morning,” as vegetables hot from the sun will take a lot more energy to cool. Keep the harvest wagon covered in the field.

Whatever the scale of your operation, harvesting efficiently and properly saves time and labor costs, and preserves the quality of your produce. Whether opting to invest in mechanized crop harvesting equipment, or making the most of hand-harvesting practices, selecting the right harvesting equipment makes sense, no matter the size of your crop.

COVER PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDY ANDREWS.