WEB EXTRA: Mechanical harvester nears commercialization

10/08/2013 01:12:00 PM
Vicky Boyd

The commercial machines used to pick processing tomatoes and the two prototypes being developed by Ramsay Highlander Inc., Salinas, Calif., to harvest fresh-market tomatoes share only a few similarities.

Both significantly reduce the need for labor and both deposit harvested fruit in tubs trailered alongside, to name a few.

But that’s where they stop, says Frank Maconachy, president.

A processing tomato harvester typically uses a cutting bar to clip plants from the roots.

The plants are then conveyed into the harvester, where a shaker that includes large agitating fingers literally shakes the fruit from the vines.

Processors can absorb a few bruised fruit because they’re going into processed products.

“But with fresh market, you have to devine them in a gentle way,” he said.

Ramsay Highlander has been working with a large California fresh-market tomato grower-packer and drew from its experience with much-more-delicate bell peppers to develop a just such a machine.

 The prototype machine uses a vine separator to handle the product that comes up quickly. During the experimental phase, Maconachy says the vine separator removed the tomatoes so well, they added a second separator and found it was much gentler on the fruit.

The fruit then passes through a color sorter that separates greens and breakers from red fruit. The reds are diverted to a gondola that goes processing, while the greens and breakers are conveyed into a separate tub for transport to the packinghouse.

A crew of about a half dozen workers also hand sorts, removing culls and material other than tomatoes that have made it past the electronic eyes.

See related story on developing machine-harvestable fresh-market tomatoes on
TheGrower.com

Even details, such as operator comfort, have been incorporated into the unit, Maconachy says. The cab is completely heated and air conditioned, and a screen hooked to cameras focused to the rear and on adjacent trailers allow the operator to monitor operations without craning his or her neck.

Maconachy says they’ve passed the beta-testing phase and are in what he described as the “gamma-testing” phase.

“We really see the end of the tunnel, and we only have very minor things we have to button up,” he says.

The next step is full production mode, “but we are always continuing to make small little tweaks to continue to improve them.”

In California where the machine has been tested, producers grow a bush-type tomato with a concentrated crown fruit set on bare soil.

Having to deal with plastic-covered beds could create a challenge, Maconachy says.

“Pieces of plastic could be an issue because they would come up the conveyors,” he says.



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