Onward, Onward! ONWARD, Man, go ever onward! March on with the waves of Life! Moving, ever moving onward, Be no coward in the strife! Marching onward, help the weaker! Help the suffering on earth! Onward, ever going onward, Bring no shame upon your birth! Live your life for you—for others! Know its earnest, vital goal: “Onward, onward, ever onward Let your noble doings roll!” Herman Bernstein 1899
Growers are increasingly faced with complex decision making when removing and replanting old orchards for wholesale production. Choosing novel varieties may be on the top of the list, followed by precocious and disease resistant rootstock, but the list keeps growing. Tractor size and bin moving equipment constraints, tree architecture, support system and spacing, recognizing shifts in market demands then planting and applying specific production constraints for markets (especially for ‘Club Varieties’ or market ‘labels’), considering potential return on investment and likely market lifespan while also considering consumer driven ‘name recognition’ (X-Crisp), flavor, color, storage ability, are just a few of the decisions that come to mind.
If you think NYS markets are constrained, think about wholesale fruit production in the South Pacific, on the relatively small island of New Zealand. Shipping CA or cold fruit by container ships in high volume to major world markets is their only option for selling wholesale apple. To optimize production to that end, apple growers in NZ have developed models based on partner cooperatives, employing breeders, private research firms, corporate farm ownership and of course…shippers, developing concepts and dreams that are steadily coming to fruition…ever onward.
One of the concepts coming on line in New Zealand orchards has been the transition towards two-dimensional (2-D) tree architecture. These designs incorporate tree plantings 3 feet spacing in 8′ row centers, producing fruit along trellis wire spaced at 1′ intervals beginning at knee height. Branches and fruit are tied snug to the wire and hang 0-5 inches from the tree row mid-line with, providing fruit access for efficient platform harvesting.
Recent advances in robotic harvesting, founded in the development of digital fruit image recognition, accurate robotic arm movements and a vacuum system to gently remove and deposit the fruit into bins without injury has shown promise as a future replacement for the sole reliance on human labor during harvest.
Recent shortages of legal, experienced seasonal labor coupled with immigration concerns, mandated limits of harvest hours and days per worker week along with increasing hourly wages has been challenging, making robotic harvesting of fruit an important technological and economic possibility. The race in developing orchard robotic harvesters and the investment by venture capitalists and manufacturers in innovative and specialized robotic development, has created a number of prototypes that show the potential of 24 / 7 harvesting operation to bring the highest quality of fruit to the table.
Presently harvesting 10-20 bins / day, the prototype Abundant Robotics harvester, being tested in NZ, is expected to achieve rates of up to 40 bins per day in the near future (10 human harvester capacity). Coupled with robotic digital recognition of fruit maturity, the system allows for multiple picks, potentially providing growers with broad harvest options, meeting ideal storage and color requirements, with high yields of optimum fruit quality expected. Admittedly, these goals have yet to be achieved.
That said, testing has shown robotic hardware failures in the field, with Abundant Robotics and FFRobotics, of Emeq-Heffer, Israel, appearing to be the only two companies in the world close to prime time among the leaders in robotic apple harvesters. Abundant Robotics, a US California based company, has done limited commercial harvesting. FFRobotics is still testing its prototype but has sold one machine in Europe.
That said, grower investments in this level of technology should be considered now, during this early stage of development. The learning curve for 2-D tree planting, training and production will not come overnight. Employing platform harvesting in a 2-D systems will help growers better understand techniques for training limbs for optimum fruit placement for rapid platform harvest and ultimately for digital recognition in transition to robotic harvesting.
Robotics may not be in your planning calendar, but for sustained wholesale marketing, these planting systems and technologies simply can not be overlooked.
Undoubtedly our tree fruit production systems in NYS are challenged by terrain, weather, disease, insect and general pest complex, constrained by somewhat lower yields then in western dessert and flatland locations under irrigation. However, the Hudson Valley, with its close proximity to eastern markets, unparalleled fruit flavor and texture, with increasing market opportunities as the consumer seek agricultural experiences, may better capitalize on apple production using the 2-D system that may provide significantly higher quality while producing more fruit per acre. It may be as important to develop 2-D production systems in pick-your-own operations as it would be for conventional wholesale apple production providing higher yields on smaller acreage in the best of orchard locations?
The video link below shows the precision and speed in which the NZ robotic harvester works (designed and manufactured by Abundant Robotics in San Francisco).
Additionally, fruit harvesting robotics is being tested throughout Europe and the US (FFRobotics).
So….for growers embracing this vision….Onward, Onward! ONWARD, Man, go ever onward! March on with the waves of Life! Moving, ever moving onward, Be no coward in the strife!