Why should you be managing your labour using mechanical assist?

By Tony Filippi, FGVL’s Ind. Development Officer

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During the past week the Future Orchard project has delivered two on farm grower sessions at both Plunkett Orchards in the Goulburn Valley and Vernview orchards in Gippsland where both Jason Shields and David Finger demonstrated how they were integrating platform use into their orchards. This complimented the keynote speaker, Karen Lewis of Washington State University Extension where she provided an insight about what line of thinking is required to adopt opportunities for machine assist operation and much of the information this article has referenced.

 In the global commodity market, the price for apples and pears does not rise in line with your costs, it only fluctuates with supply and demand, so to be competitive you need to manage your costs in line with the selling price.

Australian apple and pear growers are in an industry where a large investment is made to produce the crop and much of it requires a high labour component.  Our labour costs are among the highest in the world and it is necessary for growers to consistently look at systems and means that will reduce cost or deliver efficiencies when employing staff.

Are robotics the answer?

True robotics for tasks such as harvest is seen as the way to solve our problems related to labour but it is still quite some years off into the future as the technology cannot match that of a human for speed in terms of seeing, picking and placing the apple or pear in a bucket.

A picker can find, detach and place currently at the rate of 1 apple every 2 seconds or faster and the sensitivity of pressure applied to harvest with a robotic hand is twice that of a human i.e. too slow and too damaging.

So what are the most important issues related to labour that confront the grower in Australia?

Firstly it is recruitment, shortages of experienced workers and the level of competition for them especially during the harvest period. And secondly the risk of injury especially in the areas of ladder use as up to 30% of the cost of claims for compensation on farm are due to them.

The more attractive a working environment is made in the orchard such as working off a platform in a high density orchard with a narrow canopy will eliminate accidents off ladders.  This will always cast a wider net of prospective employees wanting to work on these systems as can be seen in the pictures below..... to read more, please download the PDF version below.

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