“The good thing about small trees is that mechanical harvesting becomes a lot easier,” he says.
Instead of the massive machines that cost more than $1 million apiece, growers can use smaller, less-expensive machines, such as an over-the-row olive harvester from Oxbo International Corp.of Byron, N.Y., or a blueberry harvester from BEI International LLC of South Haven, Mich.
Roka says the smaller machines would cost about $300,000, plus $100,000 for two “goats” to service them.
In tests, the smaller harvesters with no modifications were used on a couple of rows of dwarf trees.
“The result was very encouraging,” Ehsani says. The machine removed up to 95 percent of the fruit easily. In some cases there was some tree damage because the machine’s tree entrance tunnel was not designed for citrus.
The results should be even better if the machines are modified, such as changing the dimension of the shaking mechanism, installing conveyor belts appropriate for citrus fruit, and adjusting the shaking frequency and amplitude.
Ehsani says he plans to demonstrate one of the smaller machines at a mechanical harvesting field day next spring.
“The potential for mechanical harvesting is huge,” Roka says.
The key is getting them built and used over sufficient acreage that economies of scale take over.
With 85 percent of a crop going into a trailer, growers should be able to save 25 to 30 cents per box compared with hand-picked citrus, he says.
Despite slow progress and even occasional setbacks, mechanical harvesting eventually will take hold in Florida, Meador predicts.
“We’ve seen the transition in many other areas, from sugar cane to grape harvesting,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Mechanical harvesting symposium set for April
The University of Florida Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences has scheduled an International Symposium on Mechanical Harvesting and Handling Systems of Fruits and Nuts, April 2-4, 2012, at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.
The event, sponsored by the UF/IFAS Citrus Mechanical Harvesting & Abscission Program, is designed for scientists, growers, harvesters, handlers, processors and others interested in the practices and concerns associated with the technology.
Topics during the two-day symposium include harvesting systems, abscission aids, harvesting aids, robotic harvesting, automation and new machine designs.