Autumn is generally synonymous with brightly colored leaves; pumpkin carv- ing; 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
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.
A New Spin on an Old Process
Brown and his family are no strangers to the agri-
culture 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,
“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,”
;e Apple Harvester is one example.
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
;e 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
;e 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.
;e vacuum technology was something that
Brown said was the biggest challenge and took the
longest to perfect. ;ey first incorporated displace-
ment 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 ex-
act, 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. ;is 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.
“;is year we’re about 15 to 20 percent short of
pickers needed to get the crop o;. ;at’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.
Phil Brown Welding Corp., 4689 8 Mile Road N. W.,
Conklin, MI 49403, 616-784-3046, www.ph
Apple picking for the 21st century
Michigan welding shop puts new spin on harvest time
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Hoses attached to the collection buckets gently send
apples to the collection bin. Phil Brown engineered the
tubes with decelerators to ensure that apples arrive at
their final location unscathed.
Here’s another look at the hydraulic picking platforms.
Brown said the platforms allow for faster, safer picking.
;e Apple Harvester has hydraulically powered picking
platforms on both sides, allowing the work team to gather crops on multiple trees.
Brown estimates that orchards in Michigan and Washington are currently su;ering a worker shortage of 15 to
20 percent, making the Apple Harvester more relevant in
years to come, especially if that trend continues.