New machines alter agriculture's future
By Dennis Pollock
The Fresno Bee
Originally published 2006-10-01
In a green bean field near Fowler, hundreds of metal fingers on a machine are doing what 66-year-old Joe Santellano's fingers did decades ago when he harvested beans in the San Jose area.
They're picking the beans and sending them into a box -- their first stop before being hauled to Sunnyside Packing in Selma.
Santellano and Todd Hirasuna, field representatives with Sunnyside, watch the machine make its way through the field. It's the first time they have used it.
They sort through the harvested beans and wince at those that have snapped.
Broken and misshapen beans will be culled from what is sold to retailers.
"A broken bean," Hirasuna says, picking one up. "That's a necessary evil."
But most are in perfect condition.
Plagued by rising costs for labor and worker shortages, the packinghouse bought the $28,500 harvester this year.
The irony: Bean harvesters have been in use for about 30 years elsewhere in the United States. Simple geography -- the proximity to a huge, low-cost labor force in Mexico -- virtually had kept them out of California fields until now.
Severe spot-labor shortages, crackdowns on illegal immigration and planned increases in the minimum wage have opened California's doors to existing machinery, fostered research and development to meet niche agricultural needs and taken talk of orchard robots out of the realm of science fiction.
In recent years, considerable attention had focused on hulking machines such as Oxbo's Korvan equipment, which now rumbles in greater numbers through California's raisin and wine grape vineyards.
However, other niche markets are coming into view. For the first time this year, fresh grapes were harvested in Madera County for canning into fruit cocktail.
In a state where specialty crops abound, so do opportunities for manufacturers like Oxbo, maker of many of those vineyard machines and the bean harvester. The company has facilities in Byron, N.Y.; Clear Lake, Wis.; and Lynden, Wash.
Chili peppers in Salinas Valley and pomegranates in the central San Joaquin Valley could be next to get mechanized.
Oxbo already has machinery that harvests fresh garbanzo beans.
Morgan Murray, general manager of Califresh of California, a Sanger-based pioneer in the marketing of fresh garbanzo beans, said the machines have proved vital to the success of the company over the past four years.
"That's what made it feasible to pursue this business," he said.
Oxbo President Gary Stich said the company, which has about $100 million in annual sales, does not seek to compete with multibillion-dollar players like John Deere and Case New Holland.
"But 100 machines is right up our alley," he said.
Stich and other top managers for Oxbo visited the Valley recently to explore new opportunities.
Because of increased interest in Oxbo machines, "we could be sitting on a gold mine of mechanized equipment," said Andrew Talbott, vice president for sales and marketing.
For example, the company has been selling harvesters of chili peppers abroad for some time. Now it intends to knock on doors in the Salinas Valley.
Growers shied from the expense in days past, Stich said.
"But now, there is a serious question of whether the labor will be there," he said.
Oxbo itself has steered clear of robotics, which requires considerably more research and development -- and expense, Stich said. He conceded that his company's approach is to seek out "the lower hanging fruit," finding quicker solutions to grower needs.
Those solutions are not necessarily simple, however. Oxbo touts a complete line of vineyard mechanization equipment that can handle everything from pruning and thinning leaves to harvesting, working with engineers and viticulturists such as Greg Berg in Kingsburg.
"We go where the market is needed most," Berg said.
Meeting labor needs
The demand for labor-saving machinery has had a significant impact on even smaller manufacturers of equipment. Among them is Kingsburg Cultivator Inc., which made eight machines for laying paper trays for raisins in 2003 and four machines for picking up raisins.
This year, the Kingsburg company made 55 of each of those machines, said Clint Erling, the company's president. The Kingsburg units, priced at $22,000 for the tray machines and $43,000 for pickup equipment, augment larger machinery from other manufacturers.
Larry Moles said Kingsburg equipment has proved vital to some 4,500 acres that he harvests with his brother, Ray.
Mechanization is clearly having an impact.
This year's raisin harvest is nearly 70% complete, and for the first time in years, labor needs did not become an issue, said Glen Goto, who heads the Raisin Bargaining Association. He cited two reasons: At least 40% of the crop is mechanically harvested, and grape yields may be down as much as 30%.
And this year for the first time, the Del Monte plant in Kingsburg conducted a test harvest of fresh Thompson seedless grapes for fruit cocktail.
"It was just one quarter-mile row in Madera County," said Kyle Reynolds, field superintendent for the plant. "We have to do things to remain competitive, to keep agriculture in California. We're competing with the whole world."
Reynolds said the test showed potential.
Mitch Ritchie, an Oxbo representative, said machines may some day be used to harvest pomegranates, a prospect that has spurred interest on the part of Paramount Farming, which markets juice from the fruit under the Pom Wonderful brand.
But he conceded that there are differences between pomegranate trees and -- for example -- citrus trees in Florida, where mechanical harvesters have been used on oranges for juicing.
"Orange trees are resilient," he said. "Pomegranate trees may not be."
Million-dollar machines for harvesting citrus became popular in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as construction projects drew workers away from Southern citrus groves.
But in California, most oranges are harvested for fresh market sales, and that means a need for machinery that would not cause cosmetic damage to the fruit. That has spawned interest in development of a robotic harvester. The California Citrus Research Board in Visalia has even put about $260,000 toward developing a machine that could do the job.
Board President Ted Batkin said San Diego-based Vision Robotics has created one in virtual reality. He explained that the Vision Robotics system, which could cost farmers about $600,000, includes a "scout" with a set of cameras that first goes into the groves to map the location of fruit, followed by a harvester.
"We think the full-blown harvester for mature trees could be four to five years away," said Derek Morikawa, CEO of Vision Robotics, which also is working on a precision pruning system for vineyards.
The robotic harvester, because it involves picking fruit to be sold fresh, has drawn interest from other commodity groups, including the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.
Batkin said that as early as 2008, the citrus scout may be tested at the Lindcove Field Station in Tulare County.
He said that piece of equipment has multiple uses: It can estimate the crop size and help farmers by gauging nutritional levels and water stress, among other things.
Batkin said the robotic system could usher in changes in the way oranges are grown.
"We may breed for trees that produce [fruit] on the outer edges instead of internally," he said. "Or oranges would be grown in hedgerows."
Adapting crop growth
Changes in the way a crop is grown already have taken place to accommodate mechanical harvesting.
The beans that were harvested by Sunnyside Packing are a special variety suited for machine harvest. Mechanical harvesting of raisin grapes received help from scientists with the Agricultural Research Service in Parlier, including horticulturist David Ramming. They developed machine-friendly grape varieties, including DOVine, Selma Pete and Diamond Muscat.
Countries where low-cost labor is in short supply have been in the machine-farming vanguard. Australians and Italians, for example, pioneered using machines to prune grapevines, said Maxwell Norton, a University of California farm adviser for Merced County.
Norton said some wine vineyards are mechanically pruned in the San Joaquin Valley and on the Central Coast, but growers must get permission from the wineries they sell to before doing so.
Selma grower Bill Chandler said he saw pickers in apple orchards standing on moveable platforms instead of ladders in Spain.
The practice could be spreading into California. For the second time this year, a grower of pears used the platform technique in Lake County, where thousands of tons of the fruit were left to rot this year because of a worker shortage.
Rachel Elkins, a UC farm adviser for Lake and Mendocino counties, said the self-propelled platform, which rolls through the orchard on wheels, is being evaluated by the Agricultural Ergonomic Research Center at UC Davis and others for productivity, fruit quality, costs and other matters.
An advantage of the platform approach, Elkins said, is that it could broaden the pool of workers, adding some who are unable or unwilling to wrestle with long ladders in the orchards. Moreover, it may cut down on workers' compensation claims. Lights on the equipment -- as well as the greater ease in harvesting -- also could lengthen the hours of work, she said.
Elkins said the platforms are used for picking and pruning.
Concerns over workers' compensation costs -- coupled with worker thefts of thousands of boxes of his sweet corn -- prompted Emil Schaffner to start mechanical harvesting in his El Centro fields seven years ago.
"I have 60 workers now. Before, it was 300 to 350," he said.
In addition to cutting the labor force, the switch to mechanization has increased the pace of harvesting and enabled doing it at night.
Machines also may muscle in on other orchard duties.
These days, people normally thin fruit by hand. But work is being done to determine how well machines can do the job.
Uriel Rosa, an assistant professor of biological agricultural engineering at UC Davis, said mechanical thinning has been tested at the UC Kearney Agricultural Center in Parlier on plums and peaches.
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6364.
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