November 5, 2013
Phil Brown Welding of Conklin, Mich., designed and fabricated the Apple Harvester, a machine that makes picking apples easier, faster, and allows for picking at night, not just during daylight hours.
Autumn is generally synonymous with brightly colored leaves; pumpkin carving; and family outings to the local apple orchard to pick apples, drink cider, and possibly to eat one—or 12—apple cider doughnuts. But while you and your kids are going tree to tree picking the right apples to take home, elsewhere workers at commercial apple orchards are working vigorously to gather their crops quickly and efficiently.
Oddly enough, the process of picking apples hasn’t changed all that much, if ever. Phil Brown and his company, Phil Brown Welding, of Conklin, Mich., might be the ones to change all of that thanks to the Apple Harvester, a machine the company designed and fabricated that makes picking apples easier and faster and allows for picking at night, not just during daylight hours.
Brown and his family are no strangers to the agriculture industry. Brown’s father was a fruit grower so he had plenty of experience in the day-to-day operations of a farm. He also was exposed to the ingenuity that so many farmers needed back when technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today. Many times if they needed something—a tool or to fix a piece of equipment—they did it themselves.
Brown opened Phil Brown Welding in 1964, and for 49 years he has designed and fabricated 35 machines for fruit and vegetable farms, greenhouses, and nurseries.
“Most of the ideas for the machines we have designed and built come right from the growers because they’re out there every day, figuring out what they need for a faster way to do what they’re doing. So they come up with the need and we try to implement it into something that is practical,” Brown explained.
Presently workers pick apples by hand and place them in a collection bag, starting from the ground and moving up using a stationary ladder. A full bag of apples can typically weigh 30 to 40 lbs., which puts a lot of strain on workers’ neck, back, and shoulders. Due to safety issues, apples can be picked only during daylight hours. Since daylight steadily decreases in the fall, orchards don’t have a whole lot of time to collect the apples from the trees.
The Apple Harvester, a machine that the company has spent six years developing, puts a new spin on collecting apples that is safe, ergonomically friendly, productive, and allows for picking day or night.
The machine has hydraulic platforms on each side that move up, down, and side to side to allow the picking team to elevate or move in to safely gather apples that they can’t reach from ground level. Each picker is equipped with a small picking bag lined with foam and attached to vacuum hoses.
The vacuum technology was something that Brown said was the biggest challenge and took the longest to perfect. They first incorporated displacement blowers, which were noisy and expensive, but then switched to a centrifugal vacuum blower and found that it worked well, even with multiple hoses attached. It also ran much quieter—70 dB to be exact, Brown said.
Once workers place the fruit in the collection bag, the apples travel through the hoses at about 12 feet per second. Deceleration wheels slow the apples down and put them on a distributor that automatically raises and lowers with what Brown describes as an electric eye. This fills the bin without bruising the apples.
With many apple orchards experiencing a shortage of manpower, the timing of this machine couldn’t be more perfect. Brown reports that the five pickers that work on the machine can collect 20 percent more apples, an important stat given the current worker shortage.
“This year we’re about 15 to 20 percent short of pickers needed to get the crop off. That’s in Michigan, and Washington state is at least that bad if not worse. It just gets worse every year because a lot of the migrant workers have found other jobs and different things, and of course with the borders tightening up, they’re just not getting the workers that they need to do it,” Brown explained.
Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc., an orchard located in Sparta, Mich., currently has an Apple Harvester in use and is reporting good results so far.
“We’ve been running that machine for about four or five weeks now, so we’re trying to run it day and night and it seems to be working out pretty well,” Brown said.
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