Machine harvesting could affect every facet of sweet cherry industry

05/01/2011 09:53:00 AM
By Renee Stern, Contributing Editor

Bringing machine harvesting to cherry orchards could launch a revolution within the industry.

A four-year, multistate research project illustrates how far-reaching the overhaul might be, tackling new tree architecture, genetics to breed new varieties and packaging to showcase the stem-free fruit—as well as developing harvesting machines.

Matt Whiting, associate professor of horticulture at Washington State University’s Prosser research center, leads a team of researchers and growers from Washington, Oregon, California and Michigan. Funded by a $3.9 million federal specialty crops grant, they’re building on years of previous work.

“We’re trying to be ahead of the curve,” says Denny Hayden, president of Hayden Farms in Pasco, Wash., a longtime proponent who added a packing operation to help build a market for the stem-free cherries central to machine harvesting. That, he says, “isn’t a marketing ploy but a way to survive in the future with less labor.”

Reaching critical mass

Reaching the machine-harvesting goal has stalled until recently, he says. “We’re just now getting the dwarfing rootstocks and systems for pedestrian orchards, and there needs to be a critical mass.”

In the project’s first year, grower partners planted test blocks using the planar upright fruiting offshoot (UFO) architecture expected to provide the best results with any harvesting machine. It also offers efficiencies for growers who opt for hand-harvesting or interim machine-assist platforms, Whiting says.

With the UFO system, “It’s really important to get a lot of uprights in the first year because they turn into the fruiting wall two years down the road,” he says.

Fruiting walls also open up trees for more efficient spray and harvest operations.

Sold on the UFO system

Growers joining the roster in the following years will incorporate early findings, accelerating the process. Harvester prototypes under development will be tested in these blocks in the final two years as trees come into production.

Mark Hanrahan, of Knight Hill Farms in Buena, Wash., is sold on the UFO system. His experience—20 acres of fifth-leaf cherries on upright vertical UFO and an older 4 acres on an abbreviated V-trellis UFO—has him convinced. “I’m not going to plant another system,” he says.

Hanrahan has earned back his investment on these trees in their fourth year.

Architecture is key, says Tim Dahle, owner of Dahle Orchards in The Dalles, Ore. The ideal orchard setup will permit either machine-harvesting of stem-free cherries or pedestrian picking of stemmed fruit.

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