Most fruit growers would agree that there is nothing more beautiful than harvest; ripe, fresh, colorful, and scented fruits. On the one hand, fruit harvest is like a reward for all the sweat and hard work that is expended throughout the season. On the other hand, the harvest is a particularly challenging production stage, but vital for preserving the final fruit yield.
The harvest is the most labor intensive operation in fruit production and accounts for up to 60% of total labor requirements. Therefore, farmers need additional assistance to manage their harvest easily. For this reason, farmers often engage seasonal workers or use different types of harvest machinery. Each practice has its own advantages and disadvantages. In fact, each fruit production has its own harvest requirements. Still, one thing is for sure, finding the right number of skilled seasonal workers at the right time is a major concern for many fruit growers. However, if we look on the bright side, this problem has been a driving force for the development of various types of harvest machinery.
Let’s Dive into Fruit Harvest Machinery
First, it’s essential to point out that there is a big difference between the harvesting of fruit for processing and fresh fruit, particularly delicate berries. This difference has strongly influenced the development of fruit harvest machinery. In other words, taking into consideration the main principles of work, as well as the operational quality, fruit harvest machinery can be arranged in the following three groups:
- Shake and catch fruit harvest machinery systems
- Aids and platforms
- Robotic harvesting systems
Furthermore, fruit harvesters may be self-propelled units or tractor driven attachments. Additional diversification of certain fruit harvesters involve the type of the approach to the tree or bush. Two different types of harvest machines are available:
- Over the row harvesters
- Side-row harvesters
There is also one more special category of fruit harvesters, which are fruit pick-up machines.
Shake and Catch Fruit Harvesting Systems
Shake and catch fruit harvesting machines involve few different types of machines designed primarily to shake the fruits from the tree or bush to the ground or some type of a frame. Due to potential fruit damage caused by reckless fruit handling, the system is mainly used in harvesting nuts or fruits for processing.
The specific types of shake and catch machines differ in main operational systems and additional features. These differences are as follows:
- Area canopy shake to the ground harvesting system; harvest is practiced with the use of plastic rods that are pushed horizontally into the tree canopy; each group of rods is placed vertically on a plate; the rods cover the canopy surface partially; the fruits fall to the ground.
- Canopy pull and catch harvesting system; the main principle of harvesting is similar to the aforementioned area canopy shaker; the system uses tubes that are pushed horizontally into the canopy. However, when compared to area canopy shakers, pull and catch harvesters cover the larger canopy surface; harvested fruits fall to a catching surface under the tree and are conveyed to a truck.
- Trunk shake and catch harvesting system; this system involves the use of two units that encircle the tree trunk. When placed around the tree trunk, the system shakes the tree for a few seconds, causing the fruits to fall into the catch frame. Conveyors move the fruits from the frame to a bulk.
- Trunk shake to the ground harvesting system; the main work principle is the same as in the trunk shake and catch system, except the fruits fall to the ground and require manual or machinery picking.
- Continuous canopy shake and catch harvesting system; as the unit (self-propelled or tractor mounted) continuously passes through the row, rotating spiked-drum shakers engage the canopy and shake it in the horizontal row direction, removing the fruits. The fruits are delivered onto a catching frame and further transported with conveyers to a bulk handling system.
- Continuous air shake to the ground or frame harvesting system; as the unit passes through the row, it produces air stream that removes the fruits from the canopy. The fruits fall to the ground or catching frame.
Farmers who use shake to the ground harvesting systems often prefer to use fruit pick-up machines that lift fruits from the ground. These machines are particularly popular for the harvesting of nut trees. Generally, pick-up machines consist of the following main parts:
- Raking or sweeping system; moves the fruit below the canopy where it can be picked by a pick-up head
- Pick-up head; picks-up the fruit from the ground
- Trash removal mechanism; separates undesirable residues from the fruits and removes damaged fruits
- Conveyor belts; deliver the fruit to a bulk handling system.
Get Closer to Your Fruits by Using Harvest Platforms
The main purpose of harvesting platforms is to carry several pickers, thus enabling a faster rate of harvest. Platforms are a combination of manual and mechanical fruit harvesting. There are both self-propelled or tractor-driven platforms available. Besides the special units that carry the pickers, platforms may include bins that move along the conveyor at the side of pickers. Additionally, modern types of harvest platforms include some additional properties that improve harvest, such as auto-steer systems, vacuum tubes, sorting machines, etc.
Are Farmers Ready for the New Era of Robotic Fruit Harvest?
The efficient and quality-preserving harvest of fresh fruits is a major concern of many fruit growers. Luckily, in the last few years, great effort has been made in developing harvesting robotic systems. In an attempt to improve the harvest and decrease the overall labor needed, scientists, organizations, and various independent researchers work continuously on replacing human labor with robots. In other words, a new era of managing harvest is on the verge of breaking through. Various types of robotic harvesting systems are being tested. But still, commercially there are only a few robotic fruit harvesting systems available on the market. One example of a commercially available robotic harvesting system is the strawberry robotic harvester.
Generally, these harvesting systems have the ability to mimic the precision of human harvesting moves, while improving harvesting efficiency and minimizing labor. Typical robotic systems include:
- Vision system; for the detection of fruits
- The manipulator, that acts like a human hand
- An effector, that picks the fruits
- Various sensors, camera, GPS system
Unfortunately, robotic systems are still unavailable and too expensive for many fruit growers. However, with the advanced technological development and a remarkable agtech boom in recent years, there is a trace of hope that soon farmers will be able to take advantage of robotic harvesting systems.
Finally, to answer the question from the beginning: Are present agtech solutions ready to meet the challenges of fruit growers?
Well, the answer primarily depends on farmers’ expectations. On one hand, farmers who grow fruits for processing have a wide variety of harvest machinery to choose frrm. On the other hand, fresh fruit growers are still waiting for the right technological solution that will satisfy their quality and labor demands.
Finally, here is one interesting thing about farmers: they are very practical people. Those who strive to find the right solution always come up with an idea. For example, cranberry growers flood their field to collect floating berries with a special tractor and attachment.
In other words, there is always a solution available for those who ask how to improve their work.