Phil Brown with his patented vacuum apple harvester. Workers on the platforms put apples into their buckets, which are instantly sucked through the large black hoses to a device that places them in a bin without bruising them. Photo by Pete Daly
A small Conklin company that builds and repairs farm machinery for fruit growers all over the U.S. and Canada has devised and patented a vacuum apple-harvesting machine that may be able to speed up the process by 20 percent without bruising the fruit.
Phil Brown of Phil Brown Welding Corp., located among the orchards on the famed Fruit Ridge a few miles northwest of Grand Rapids, has been working on the device with partners Mike Rasch and Chuck Dietrich for several years. Brown said the vacuum harvester may be ready to go on the market in 2014.
Phil Brown Welding has built three of the harvesting units so far; one is now at Penn State University’s agricultural department for testing, and another was bought by Washington State University’s ag department to see if it will work in the apple orchards there, which are slightly different. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, known for its engineering technology, also has worked with Brown on the device in the past.
The third and most recently completed unit has been in experimental use at the Riveridge Produce Inc. orchards on the Fruit Ridge, where executives from the Meijer Inc. produce buying division saw it in action Sept. 19.
Apples grown for the fresh market must be hand-picked to avoid bruising, or customers will spurn them in the store. The method that has been in use for at least 100 years has workers with canvas-bottom buckets strapped to their chests climbing up and down ladders to empty the buckets into large wooden boxes. Picking from a ladder is extremely labor-intensive and inherently dangerous.
Brown’s invention does away with the ladders and instead has pickers standing on slowly moving platforms from which they can pick the top half of the trees. Pickers on foot pick the bottom part of the tree.
When a picker on the platform places an apple inside the bucket, a vacuum pulls it into an attached padded plastic hose that carries it down toward the bin at a speed of about 12 feet per second. Brown’s device then slows the apples down and places them gently in the bin.
The picking platforms have been around for several years but, without Brown’s vacuum conveyor system, still entail the time-consuming challenge of manually moving the apples from the trees to the bins several yards away. With Brown’s device, the pickers remain standing in place and pick continuously.
The height-adjustable platforms can be moved up and down and in or out by the pickers and are part of a self-contained unit that includes the vacuum conveyor device and bins on a trailer being filled with apples. The pickers on the platforms also control the speed and steering of the tractor pulling the entire unit.
“As far as I know, it’s the only one in the world like it,” said Brown, referring to his vacuum conveyor device. An electronic “eye” controls the placement of apples in the bin and “nobody really has to watch it. It’s all automatic,” he said.
Apple orchards now are planted with specially developed varieties that are tall and somewhat spindly, placed in compact hedge rows to enable platform picking and also use of the mobile platforms for off-season pruning.
Brown said pickers using his vacuum conveyor can pick about 20 percent faster, and much more safely, too.
He said “the big hurdle” in trying to automate apple harvesting “has been to get them through there fast enough without bruising them. It’s been a struggle for everyone, always.” He said some of the apples harvested at Riveridge with his vacuum conveyor were graded for quality and “came through as good or better as the ones picking with buckets on the ground.”
Don Armock, one of the owners of Riveridge, said the device will allow migrant workers who pick apples to do so faster and more easily, which means they would be able to make more money at it. “We want to be an employer of choice,” said Armock. “We want them to not have to climb ladders.”
Being an “employer of choice” would help any apple grower because there is a shortage of migrant workers for the harvest this year, which has been pretty much the norm for the last several years, with the exception of last year when early frost reduced the crop to 5 or 10 percent of normal.
This year, however, is shaping up as a banner year, with a Michigan apple crop estimated at 30 million bushels. According to Denise Donohue of Riveridge, about 60 percent of Michigan’s apple crop is grown on or near the Fruit Ridge, high ground that runs through Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties.
With lights on the self-propelled harvesting unit and good weather, Armock said apple harvesting can conceivably take place around the clock.
Brown, 67, is the son of an apple grower. He started his company at age 18 and has sold agricultural equipment his company makes to farmers all over the U.S. and Canada. Some overseas customers have purchased his tree planters and, recently, Phil Brown Welding shipped agricultural spraying equipment to Hawaii.
He is not sure how many patents for farm equipment he has been granted since the late 1960s — “probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 or 20.”
Brown’s patent applications regarding his latest invention involved the services of Waters & Associates, an intellectual property law firm in downtown Grand Rapids.
As indicated on his company website, Phil Brown Welding makes about 40 types of agricultural machinery and has built perhaps another 100 or so specialty items — “a lot of stuff that nobody else builds,” he said.
Two of his sons are working with him at Phil Brown Welding Corp., which has about 18 employees.