Vacuum-like harvester gives hope to apple growers short of workers

Oct 31, 2011

PROSSER, Wash. – Despite high unemployment in the Northwest, apple growers can't get enough workers to harvest their crops this year. They've bought ads, raised wages and offered trainings without much response. But soon farmers won't need as many workers with the help of some new technology.

Right now, apple workers have to climb tall aluminum ladders with hefty sacks of apples strapped to their bodies. Up and down, up and down they go.

But new technology in the form of a massive tractor-like harvester could change all this. This contraption will raise workers up into the trees on movable platforms.

From these platforms workers will then feed the apples into big padded tubes that vacuum the fruit gently into a waiting bin.

This prototype is about a year out from commercial production. Brandon Mulvaney works for the Washington State Tree Fruit Commission on the project. He says this new harvester offers some hope to growers.

"I think it will really help the orchardists in the future with the worker shortage," Mulvaney says. "They will be able to get more bins on the ground per day per picker."

This harvester is a collaboration of private industry and public funding. Just like the folk tale of John Henry, this week the team of scientists plan to test their harvesting machine against pickers with ladders in a race.

Copyright 2011 Northwest Public Radio

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