Check out our Buyers Guide for Harvest Equipment.
As part of Phase I of the National Science Foundation Grant, Harvest CROO Robotics is developing software and hardware tools. They include the vehicle’s GPS navigation system, LIDAR technology, and other camera and sensor features.
The mobile platform is a modified version of a Colby Harvest Pro Machine. With four-wheel steering, turning movement will be smooth and precise, providing a zero turning radius for greater maneuverability than a standard tractor. Special levelling hardware and software has been developed and added to allow the vehicle to compensate for varying bed heights.
The vehicle will carry 16 picking robots through the field and span 6 beds of plants, picking the four middle beds. The Harvest CROO machine is equipped with a dual GPS system. The Harvester uses both GPS systems to interpolate the position of the platform to be able to position the robots precisely over the plants.
“Having the machine navigate the fields autonomously is the culmination of years of work and prototyping,” said Bob Pitzer, Co-Founder and CTO of Harvest CROO. “It is very gratifying to see our team effort come to fruition.”
Harvest CROO Robotics continues to develop and test the latest technology for agricultural robotics. Using the proprietary vision system, all ripe berries will be harvested from the plants.
The fruit will then be transferred up to the platform level of the machine using a series of conveyers. There, the packing module of the machine will perform a secondary inspection and grade the fruit.
Depending on quality, it will either be packed into consumer units, diverted to process trays, or discarded. The use of this technology will improve the quality of the berries picked, reduce energy usage, and increase strawberry yields.
In December, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant worth up to $1 million. Harvest CROO Robotics used part of these funds to bring several highly qualified and experienced individuals on board the project. Scott Jantz, Electrical Engineering Manager, said, “We all feel like we are part of something special.”
While fundraising for the project has been ongoing, the current investment round will likely be closed at the end of July, when field testing of the vehicle is completed. “We will possibly open a new investment round early next year, at a higher valuation.”, stated Gary Wishnatzki, Co-Founder. “The new unit price will reflect the successful deployment of the Alpha Unit, a key milestone.”
With this in mind, Kingston-based software company Dragonfly IT developed Croptracker – a multi-faceted, cloud-based monitoring system designed to give fruit and vegetable growers real-time updates on their businesses.
“Croptracker offers an easy-to-use software package that monitors growing practices throughout the season,” said Matthew Deir, company founder. “Growers sign up for our system and can access all of their daily inputs from one central hub. It helps both traceability and cost saving.”
Croptracker highlights three key areas relevant to growers’ economic, environmental, and social sustainability, with food traceability taking the top spot, followed by operational costs and yield analysis.
The software itself is a consolidation of similar systems previously developed by Deir’s company, including Fruit Tracker, Apple Tracker, and Nursery Tracker. By combining these and several other systems, he says, Dragonfly IT has tried to make the software useful for all growers of all kinds.
He also emphasized that Croptracker is “literally grower-built,” being the result of “thousands of hours meeting with growers and learning what their needs were.”
The Croptracker cloud system allows growers to map how their crop is produced – what time it was planted, what inputs went into it, and so on – as well as where it came from. According to Deir, the software can literally trace each basket of product back to the field from which it was harvested, and potentially, even the person who harvested it.
Croptracker can also be used as a human resources interface, helping keep track of employee time and activity. There’s even a “punch clock” feature that can show growers who is doing what, for how long, and when. By being able to see how long it takes to perform different tasks, Deir said farmers can pinpoint where their costs are coming from, and if necessary, investigate why.
At the end of the growing season, the Croptracker system can also help monitor how good – or bad – the harvest was at different times and from different parts of the farm. Giving an opportunity for contrast and comparison, Deir said, means growers can further distil the potential sources of any yield discrepancy they might encounter.
Approximately 1,000 farmers currently have access to the software for free (their producer associations buy the rights on their behalf), but individual growers can still access Croptracker on a pay-per-package basis.
And it’s not just Ontario farmers who can use the service either; growers producing more exotic fruits in places far afield have also shown interest – most recently, for example, a New Zealand avocado grower.
“I never thought about [the software] working for that kind of crop, but the farmer definitely thought otherwise,” Deir said.
December 5, 2016, Jerusalem, Israel – Farmers of the not-so-distant future may be able to accurately project their fruit yields with the help of an automated “AGRYbot” currently taking shape in central Israel.
Known more formally as the “Robotic Sonar for Yield Assessment and Plant Status Evaluation,” the AGRYbot is a sonar system mounted on the end of a robotic manipulator that is capable of identifying the acoustic signature of different entities in the agricultural plot. READ MORE
October 24, 2016, Elmwood, PEI – Up until this fall, Alex Docherty, chairman of the PEI Potato Board and a potato farmer in Elmwood, P.E.I., would do what most potato farmers on the Island still do today — hire rock pickers.
Since a blueberry is mostly water, any touch has the potential to bruise it. While most human pickers are gentle enough to pick the berries without bruising them, the same cannot be said for mechanical pickers.
Bruising is almost guaranteed when berries drop more than 30 cm onto a hard surface, generally the case on today’s picking machines. As more growers turn to machine picking to offset the increasing cost and decreasing availability of labour, bruising has become more of an issue.
Researchers have developed a new BIRD (blueberry impact recording device) sensor to more accurately measure bruising in mechanical pickers and on packing lines. Roughly the size and shape of a blueberry, the BIRD weighs about six grams and can be dropped in a machine just like a blueberry.
“It’s very good at measuring impact,” says U.S. Department of Agriculture research horticulturist Fumiomi Takeda, who is based at the Appalachian Fruit Station in West Virginia.
The BIRD has shown that no two packing lines are the same and has pinpointed transition points as creating the most impacts. Even if each impact is small, the cumulative effect of multiple impacts is enough to create bruising and reduce overall fruit quality.
While the BIRD sensed little damage in hand harvesting, it found severe impacts in picking machines, particularly from the catch plates.
Even if bruises aren’t apparent to the naked eye, they exist, Takeda told growers and packers at the recent Pacific Agriculture Show in Abbotsford, B.C.
“Ten per cent of the [machine-picked] fruit you put into cold storage is damaged.”
Primary ways to lessen bruising are to develop a firmer berry that can stand up to machine picking or to build a picking machine that can handle berries more delicately. Berry breeders, researchers and engineers are working on both options.
“Growers have identified machine harvestability and firmer fruit as their highest priority and that’s one trait we’re focusing on,” says B.C. berry breeder Michael Dossett.
Success is still a long way away. The commercial release of a new variety can take up to 15 years and the B.C. blueberry breeding program is in its ninth year. Even if Dossett releases a new variety in the next six years, there is no indication his earliest selections have the firmness growers want and need.
Takeda says engineers are making some headway, noting they have created a new catcher plate design that “virtually eliminates bruising.”
Another promising design picks from the top using angled rotors and drops the berries onto a soft surface.
“It has the same fruit quality as hand harvesting,” Takeda says.
Researchers have also tried a walk-a-long unit (not much improvement) and a semi-mechanical machine with multiple shakers to eliminate some of the mechanical movement.
Last year, Naturipe Farms – one of the world’s leading blueberry growers and marketers – issued the Blue Challenge, inviting “innovators, developers and technology integrators to help transform the way we will harvest blueberries in the future.”
It has promised $10,000 and a joint development agreement for up to five semi-finalists, which were selected in January and February. The first person to deliver a working prototype with a demonstrable ability to be a viable commercial automated system will receive a $200,000 prize.
While they await a winner, Takeda says one thing growers can do is pad their catch plates so berries don’t drop straight onto hard plastic. Packers should also consider rejigging their lines to reduce the number of transition points.
Starting a business isn’t hard. Starting a business that stands the test of time is more difficult.
Ag-Tronic Control Systems Inc. has grown hand-in-hand with the industry it supports in Ontario and elsewhere. Joe Sleiman is the mastermind and owner behind the company, which is celebrating 25 years in business in 2016.
Located in Lakeshore, Ont. – near Lake St. Clair – Sleiman says Ag-Tronic has become known as an innovative automation design and manufacturing company.
Over the past quarter century, the company has succeeded in designing and manufacturing automated sorting and grading systems, setting new industry standards for the 21st century. This is particularly true for cucumber and sweet corn production.
Prior to the birth of Ag-Tronic, Sleiman worked as a lead electro-mechanical service person for a farm equipment dealer, which earned him a reputation for providing exemplary customer service. He also designed and manufactured three successful automation systems.
Due to a slowing economy in the early 1990s, Sleiman found himself unemployed but not out of ideas. Realizing the future of the agriculture community was dependent on technology and automation, he seized the opportunity.
Ag-Tronic Control Systems began with Sleiman and his wife, Samia. Today, the couple’s operation employs 20 people.
“We’ve done a good job of recognizing new opportunities and supplying the best solutions at competitive prices,” says Sleiman.
An example is the spin-off sales company Accu-Label Inc., created in 2001 to meet product-labeling requirements in the fruit sector.
Rapid growth of the industry has presented its share of challenges. Finding and maintaining staff to represent Ag-Tronics is one thing Sleiman admits has always been tough – especially for a businessman who likes to over-deliver.
“Our ability to tailor appropriate technical as well as practical solutions to customer needs is a result of 25 years experience both in Canada and abroad. Right now, we are in the process of establishing a global network to expand our products and services all over the world. Diversification will keep us going and growing for another 25 years.”
The closed structure and controlled environment of the greenhouse makes for an ideal place for robot technology to flourish but there are many challenges. Photo by Contributed photo
Bill Gates predicted that every home in South Korea would have a robot by 2015, says Medhat Moussa, a professor with the school of engineering at University of Guelph, adding that Japan’s robotic industry would reach $50 billion in sales by 2025.
“That hasn’t happened,” he admits. “However, every year has seen record sales of robots for the last five years. Every year breaks the record. Some of that is due to the auto sector but also to technological advances in robotics.”
What does that mean for agriculture?
“A recent market study predicted that the agricultural robot market would grow from $817 million in 2013 to $16.3 billion in 2020, that’s just seven years,” Moussa says.
This growth is happening and researchers at the University of Guelph are helping it along.
Examples in the field
A lettuce-thinning robot, created by Blue River Technology in California, is used for the thinning and weeding of lettuce to increase yield. Its vision system scrutinizes each plant then applies “advanced artificial intelligence algorithms that make plant-by-plant decisions,” says Moussa, to optimize yield and then eliminate unwanted plants according to its programming.
Agrobot S.L., a company based in Spain, has developed a strawberry harvester that uses cameras to analyze the plant and find the ripest berries. It takes 20 photos per second and sends the data to a computer algorithm that separates each berry by its shape, size and colour. If 80 per cent of a strawberry meets the criteria, an arm is extended to scoop up the fruit in its basket and a blade extends to cut the stem.
“This machine should be available quite soon,” Moussa says.
“Most of these robots are for specific crops, and attached to that is a specific feasibility study of whether or not there is a cost benefit to operating these systems.”
So what about a general robot for harvesting?
“For this, there are many challenges,” he says, citing a research paper published last year that followed 40 different projects worldwide over the last 30 years. “Not a single one of them was commercialized for general harvesting.”
The issue lies in the different variables existing for each crop to be harvested, Moussa says. Each crop has its own size variability, reflectance and ripeness signature that the vision system has to accommodate. Plus the accessibility and visibility of the fruit must be optimal.
There is also the variability in the growing environment – whether it be wind and rain, natural lighting conditions or physical objects in the way. For fruit, different cultivation and training systems that impact tree geometry must be accounted for in the programming. Guidance systems that are appropriate for open fields or orchards are also needed.
“All of these add to the complexity of using a robot in the open field,” Moussa says.
Robots in greenhouse applications
The closed structure and controlled environment of the greenhouse, however, makes for an ideal place for robot technology to flourish but there are many challenges.
“The Leamington area has the largest concentration of greenhouses in North America and these are all high tech,” Moussa says. “In terms of the level of technology, the only competition is in Holland.”
Besides environment, robots are needed in the greenhouse industry because labour accounts for 30 per cent of expenses or about $70,000 to $80,000 per acre per season. Moussa and his research team were approached by a large operation in 2009 to develop a robot system for harvesting, de-leafing and later scouting for diseases. While setting up this system, Moussa says they had some issues.
“In terms of technical issues, tomato greenhouses have 10,000 to 12,000 plants per acre which is difficult for a robot looking for fruit covered by leaves.”
The other problem is dynamic, where the robot is attempting to grasp a tomato but brushes against the plant causing the whole plant to move which changes its location.
Another issue is speed. Researchers have found that workers are generally very efficient and can pick a tomato in six to seven seconds. The robot takes just over one minute.
Safety is a concern and not just for workers for whom there are guards and sensors mounted on the robot, but also for the health of the plant.
“If you make a mistake and cut the plant, that’s a production issue,” Moussa says. “There are a lot of tomatoes on one plant.”
The last issue is cost.
“How much are you willing to spend? Can we actually use robots to increase revenue by reducing waste and increasing yield?”
Moussa’s team uses a systems approach, which includes both hardware and software, with the design being driven by data. He calls the system the Guelph Intelligent Greenhouse Automation System or GIGAS.
To generate this data, GIGAS’ components include a vision system with multiple cameras to take images of the plants.
“At the back end is a plant database that keeps track of all the plants in the greenhouse, with a decision support and planning element, where all the calculations are made,” he says. “Once a decision is made, that message is sent to the robot that goes and does the job.”
This robot can gently pick an individual beefsteak tomato, or properly select a tomato cluster for supper. The robot also has a different arm adapted for trimming foliage and de-leafing.
During a workshop in 2012, Moussa was asked by some growers if GIGAS could be used for disease scouting.
“This is very preliminary, but we can actually scan for powdery mildew and detect it early on,” he says.
Challenges over next five years
One technical challenge is giving the robot full functional capabilities. For a robot to work well, to pick the crop and deliver the harvest, it has to be connected with the rest of the infrastructure in the greenhouse and this has not been done.
“This is more of an engineering issue than a research one,” Moussa says.
“Our vision system now is about 60 to 70 per cent accurate and we are working to increase that. We are also looking at multiple cameras and other sensors like laser.
“As for the gripping system, we are doing very well. This is our last iteration and we have tested many exotic designs with multi-fingered hands but the more exotic, the more costly it becomes and no one can afford it. So the dual-finger gripper can be picked up from many manufacturers, I can adjust that, add sensors and a controller then you can have something that is reasonably priced.”
Moussa predicts that in four to five years, they will have developed a commercially viable robot for harvesting and de-leafing.
For now, the industry waits.
July 6, 2015 – A project involving 3D camera technology currently being developed at the University of Lincoln, UK, could result in a fully automatic robotic harvesting system for broccoli.
The University of Lincoln was one of more than 70 UK businesses and universities to share funding through the £70 million Agri-Tech Catalyst, which aims to improve the development of agricultural technology in the UK.
The project, which is jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Innovate UK, will test whether 3D camera technology can be used to identify and select when broccoli is ready for harvesting. This will be a key step towards the development of a fully automatic robotic harvesting system for broccoli, which will significantly reduce production costs.
The research team comprises academics Professor Tom Duckett and Dr Grzegorz Cielniak from Lincoln’s School of Computer Science and Dr Simon Pearson from the university’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing (NCFM) at Holbeach. The main industry partner is R. Fountain & Son Ltd, horticultural consultants based in Boston, Lincolnshire, who will be responsible for creating the broccoli-cutting device.
“Broccoli is one of the world's largest vegetable crops and is almost entirely manually harvested, which is costly,” said Dr. Tom Duckett, group co-ordinator of the Agri-Food Technology Research Group at the University of Lincoln. “This technology is seen as being an important move towards developing fully automatic robot harvesting systems, which could then be used for a variety of different crops.
“In all our agri-related research work, our mission is to develop new technological solutions for the business of producing food through agriculture. The long-term impact of our research includes safer food, less waste, more efficient food production and better use of natural resources, as well as promoting human health and happiness.”
“The Agri-Tech strategy aims to make the UK a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability,” said Ian Meikle, head of agriculture and food at Innovate UK. “The funding decisions are expert-led and evidence-based. They support great ideas that address challenges of the future in food and farming. With business, research and government working together, these investments can unlock potential and deliver major benefits for society and the economy.”
Another project benefiting from the University of Lincoln’s expertise in this area is the early detection and biocontrol of prevalent diseases of mushrooms and potatoes.
Also funded by Innovate UK, this project addresses challenges associated with the identification, prevention and management of disease by developing diagnostic tools for farm use and alternatives to chemical pesticides. This will enable the primary producers in these industries to rapidly diagnose the existence of disease and facilitate earlier decision making.
It is anticipated that this project will develop a long-needed alternative to the use of pesticides by the mushroom and potato industries, thereby ensuring their future sustainability.
“Food loss from farm to fork, due to disease and spoilage, causes considerable environmental and economic effects,” said Dr Bukola Daramola, principal investigator with the university’s NCFM. “The outputs of this project have the potential to significantly address the challenges presented to the mushroom and potato sectors by pathogenic bacteria and fungi, their detection and resistance to treatment. At the heart of the project is a drive to develop robust solutions for bio-monitoring and bio-control, leading to scientific advancement and the marketing of products which will ultimately have significant economic and societal benefit for the UK and beyond.”
With the increases in minimum wage, labour costs have jumped significantly for Ontario horticulture farmers in recent years. While this has been tough on many producers, apple growers have been feeling the bight keenly considering there is more labour required to keep an orchard running.
Some have approached the challenge head-on, aggressively reducing the need for labour through planning, management and intensive production. But one Ontario grower has thrown a lot of effort into doing more with less. For his hard work and experimentation, Werner Zurbuchen, the owner of Zurbuchen Farm in Norfolk County, was recognized with a 2014 Premier’s Awards for Agrifood Innovation Excellence.
“We still have to work long hours at times,” he admits. “But we’re doing significantly more with less.”
In 1993, Zurbuchen and his family decided to sell their broiler operation and orchard/vineyard in Switzerland and immigrate to Canada. They purchased a broiler chicken farm in the Waterford area, which featured 185 workable acres of loam soil that has since been systematically drained. During his first autumn on the new farm, Zurbuchen got going right away with apple growing. He planted 100 apple trees and also grafted other varieties to test how they would perform in the Ontario climate. Once he saw them doing well, he budded 17,000 trees on rootstock in his own nursery, and then planted them on 17 acres. From 2009 to 2012, Zurbuchen and his family expanded the orchard to 50 acres. The farm now has 48 acres of apples (with 10 being mature, high-density cultivation), two acres of pears, and the rest supporting a rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat.
“The apple crop estimate for 2015, if things go well, is about 1,000 bins,” Zurbuchen says. “In terms of what we grow, over the past two years, we have cut out our Spy, Mutsu and Macintosh cultivars because these varieties aren’t favoured today, and are now growing a majority of newer varieties. By today’s standards, we plant a medium-density orchard of 1,000 trees per acre and train them as tall spindle.”
Tall spindle tree care, once the trees reach their maturity, is time-consuming in terms of taking care of the upper section beyond normal arm reach from the ground.
“If you use a ladder for this – and for thinning, tying, trellis installation and harvesting – it’s quite expensive because of the labour involved,” Zurbuchen says. “In addition, ladders and heavy bags of apples can be dangerous.”
Zurbuchen had already designed the high-density part of the orchard for mechanization, so when labour costs started increasing around 2010, he went the automation route and bought machinery. (He also welcomed his son-in-law Joseph Taylor to the farm as mechanic and, after some training, as seasonal field manager.) Zurbuchen’s first purchases were an imported European mechanical thinner, a Frumaco platform/harvest-aid and a bin trailer. In 2011, he bought a Feucht windfall pick-up machine, and in 2013, a Fama mechanical pruner.
The Frumaco platform has performed as expected, boosting operational efficiency by a significant amount.
“It cuts both pruning and harvest time by 35 per cent, and thinning and trellis/tying worktime each by 50 per cent,” Zurbuchen says. “I can’t provide an accurate figure for the mechanical pruner right now as we’re still experimenting with it, but together with the platform, we are hoping for at least a total 50 per cent reduction in pruning time. We have used it a lot in a leased orchard with standard planting density and with varieties prone to dropping, and we can pick up at least 50 bins in seven hours with two men running it.”
While worker safety has also been improved with the machinery additions, Zurbuchen says that proper instruction for each worker is still critical in order to keep the risk of accidents to a minimum.
Because he thought there might be other growers besides himself interested in mechanizing, Zurbuchen also started an orchard equipment business called Tazu Technology. The company imports and distributes mechanical pruners, platform picking machines and other orchard equipment.
“We stand by what we sell because we have firsthand experience with it,” he says.
There are six Frumaco harvesters currently being used in Quebec and Ontario orchards, and Zurbuchen believes that number will increase.
“There’s been a lot of interest from growers and we’re confident that in the coming years, more farmers will move forward in mechanising their operations,” he says. “We are currently in the process of purchasing a Lipco twin row tunnel sprayer which will be able to spray two rows at once, recycling lost chemicals while not being effected by the prevailing winds we seem to have quite often.”
Zurbuchen is also thinking seriously about buying a Frost Buster – a propane air blast heater that will help combat night frost in the spring and also assist with pollination.
The current challenges for this operation include planting new varieties that will be strong market leaders for many years to come. Replacing some of the less desirable older varieties with newer ones will also help to fill out the orchard’s harvesting window. Zurbuchen also wants to continue honing his integrated pest management (IPM) program, as well as his strategies for finding committed local labour.
“It’s also a challenge these days to deal with more and more paperwork, not only related to employees but also to comply with regulations and burdensome red tape,” he says.
Of winning the award, Zurbuchen says he’s happy that it’s brought some positive attention to the apple industry.
“It is our hope that the government understands that for Ontario farmers to be successful in a very competitive market is a very real challenge,” he says. “We are thankful to the premier and her staff who put the work into recognizing the hardworking people in the agriculture industry.”
The Dreidgers added a 1,000 pound counter-weight on the right side of the machine to balance the weight of the cross conveyor hanging out to the left. Photo by Contributed
If you aren’t a tomato farmer, you might have a hard time guessing what Dennis Driedger’s machine is for. It’s a bit of a strange-looking contraption, with cutting disks, belts and conveyors all whirring in different directions and angles when it’s up and running. But odd appearance aside, it does the job well – and it earned Driedger a Minister’s Award in the 2014 Premier Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence competition.
The machine was created because Driedger knew there had to be a better way to harvest his crop. At the time, the only tomato harvesting method and machinery commercially available – a pusher unit that sat at the front of a tractor – posed a problem for tomato farmers who wanted to deliver high quality whole pack fruit to their customers. Simply put, in order for harvest to proceed with large tractors and transport trailers, they were required to “open the field” and push plants out of the way to be able to straddle the rows. This resulted in product being wasted, split and squished by tractor tires and dump carts. A new harvesting method and machine, if one could be devised, would need to be able to lift and move entire crop rows, making room for the harvesting equipment and protecting all fruit from damage. If it could be done, this new method would also speed things up, with tomatoes loaded directly onto trailers and transported directly to the processing plant. But to create a better way to harvest his 150 acres of tomatoes in Wheatley Ont., Driedger was on his own. That is, it would be up to him, his parents Abe and Helga, wife Karen and ”right hand man” Pete Peters to get the job done. (Son Jesse will be graduating from Ridgetown College this spring and will be joining the farm then, while daughter Karlee is in nursing school.)
“There are so few of us tomato growers, and there just aren’t the equipment options out there, and we have to be innovative,” he explained. “It’s all about delivering quality.”
He was ready to take on the challenge, because over his 30 years of farming, he’s made or modified numerous other machines and implements.
“I’ve made specialized equipment before such as a fertilizer applicator and I like doing it,” he said. “Ten years ago, we designed and built our own tomato harvester as there was no self-propelled offset-style tomato harvester on the market. With it all in one machine, it’s easier to handle and does the job better. The tomato business in Canada is just that way. There aren’t very many of us, and because of the different weather conditions and growing season and soil types that we have here compared to the U.S., the standard equipment that’s available doesn’t suit our needs very well. It doesn’t work terribly well with a wet harvest, handling mud.”
Driedger started with an old harvester and tore it down to the chassis. He envisioned something that would lift, cut and gather like a harvester, but that would also gently deposit the plants and dirt three rows over. It also needed to be a self-propelled machine because even a pull-type version would need a tractor out in front, which would defeat the purpose. By the end of the first season, he and his father, son and Pete had built an operational machine – a tomato row opener with a disc head assembly installed in front of the chassis.
“After the first build, we took it to the field and brought it back many times to the farm shop to make changes,” Driedger remembered. “The angle of the incline had to be reduced because the plants weren’t going up all the way. They were rolling back. The top of the header chain had to be shortened because the plants weren’t hitting the centre of the cross conveyor, but were shooting overtop.”
They also had to add a counter-weight of 1,000 pounds on the right side of the opener to balance the weight of the cross conveyor that was hanging out far to the left. Driedger said they did all the work themselves, only needing to talk to a hydraulic specialist when it came to driving all the motors. The harvester they’d started with had a lot of hydraulic capacity, so they had to scale that down to run the opener, which is smaller and has fewer moving parts. In the second year, all that was needed was tweaking – things like adding some shielding and rubber belting here and there at points where tomatoes were escaping from the conveyors.
Driedger was extremely pleased with the machine, which speeds up harvesting by almost 20 per cent.
“On average, 10 per cent of our tomato crop would be lost in opening a field,” he said. “So we have 10 per cent more going for whole pack, instead of paste, with the former obviously providing a higher price per tonne. We were pleasantly surprised that the results were that good. We saw the benefits the first year in how we were graded at the factory.”
And the machine’s usefulness has gone beyond the original intent of just opening a field for the harvester. Driedger also uses it to widen the headland at the end of the rows in the field to allow the harvester more room to turn and get into the rows.
“We used to do that by hand every day, moving what we required for that day of harvesting. We used to call this 45 minutes our morning exercise.”
Two fellow growers in the neighbourhood have since built their own “tomato row opener” machines.
“They came to the farm and I was happy to show them this one and help them,” Driedger said. “That’s the way we are, the group of guys around here, we help each other and share. I am sure there [are] others interested, at least those in the whole pack business instead of those growing for paste. But everyone would likely have to do things differently, because they might not have an old harvester but have some other piece of equipment as a base to start with.”
Driedger and everyone else on the farm were very excited about winning a Premier’s Award and then being chosen for the Minister’s Award.
“We had a great day in Toronto with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs staff and at the summit with the premier and agriculture minister,” Driedger said. “It was a great pleasure.”
Heeman’s Strawberry Farm recently won a regional Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for advancement of a traceability system that’s been in place on the operation since the beginning of berry picking at the farm. Photo by Contributed
Innovation goes a long way back at Heeman’s Strawberry Farm of Thorndale, Ont. – back more than five decades.
Newlyweds Bill and Susan Heeman emigrated from Holland to Canada in the late 1950s and it wasn’t long after they arrived that they purchased a farm near London. The automotive industry wasn’t booming and it was hard for Bill to find work as a mechanic, so the couple concentrated on the farm. As they grew their strawberry acreage, Bill invented a machine that saved staff from back pain and sped up berry harvesting – by allowing up to 20 people at a time to pick berries while lying on their stomachs.
We’re happy to report that innovation is still going strong at Heeman’s Strawberry Farm to this day, with the family business having achieved not one, but two Premier’s Awards for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence over the past few years. The first was for their renowned customer plant storage service. After building their first greenhouse in 1975 and expanding greenhouse space at a steady rate over the years, the Heemans built a storage greenhouse of almost 20,000 square feet in 2010 specifically for taking care of customers’ prized plants.
“Before this designated greenhouse was built, we had been ‘babysitting’ plants over the winter in empty areas of other greenhouses basically as a favour for friends with tropical plants,” explains Will Heeman, Bill’s grandson. “It slowly grew by word of mouth and now we store over 2000 plants a year for customers from as far away as Niagara, Peterborough, Collingwood and Sarnia.”
The plants that enjoy a winter getaway at Heeman’s range from smallish pots of hibiscus and mandevilla to towering palms, citrus and other exotics.
“We’ve recently added in-floor and perimeter heat, energy and shade curtains and computer automation to our storage greenhouse,” Will explains. “We also wrote a computer program involving barcodes for efficient plant care, and to track the locations of all plants for each customer.”
Today, the operation has 57 acres of berries and more than 100,000 square feet of greenhouse. Three generations of the family work on site. Bill is head grower and the conscience of Heeman’s Greenhouse. His son, Rudy, wears many hats as “the berry boss,” co-owner, chief mechanic, builder and fixer for Heeman’s Strawberry Farm and Heeman’s Greenhouse (two separate businesses). Rudy’s wife, Florence, is a co-owner of Heeman’s Strawberry Farm and manages the pick-your-own operation. Bill’s daughter, Rita, is co-owner and general manager of Heeman’s Greenhouse. Will serves as “chief day-maker” (a person who makes your day) and head of marketing and customer relations for both businesses.
The Heemans’ second regional Premier’s Award is for advancement of a traceability system that’s been in place since the beginning of berry picking at the farm.
“Before we ever had a barcode system, we tracked our picking with paper and pen and wrote their number on the flat with marker,” Will says. “While we couldn’t tell what day or where it was picked, we still knew who picked those flats. If people ever called in, we could make sure any issues were fixed and turn it until a teaching moment.”
However, tracing berries just down to the flat and not the quart was limiting.
“The majority of our customers buy less than a flat and those purchases weren’t traceable,” Will says. “While tracing to the flat level meets industry standard, it doesn’t help us track all berries and protect our reputation, which rides on the quality of our product. Now, we can track by the quart to the specific farm, field, picker and harvest time and recall or handling issues is easy. Our customers can also provide us with online feedback, rating the quality of their berries.”
All customers have to do is visit www.freshqc.com, type in the 16-digit code from the bottom of their quart and follow the easy instructions.
Implementation of the system was not difficult, just involving things like training pickers to put a sticker on each quart and the flat before picking, versus having the foreman apply the barcode afterwards.
“Our pickers appreciate hearing that people thought they did a good job,” he says. “Good report or bad, they receive the feedback. It’s great for them to get the credit and if a teachable moment comes from it, it’s more meaningful because the feedback comes from the person who bought the berries.”
If the customer purchased Heeman’s berries in a store and the score is less than perfect, that feedback is shared with both the picker and the retailer, to find out what went wrong, and fix it. The Heemans provide anyone who is not 100 per cent satisfied with a replacement quart or flat, no matter where they bought them.
“Of all the farms in North America using a similar system to ours – and most farms using the system are five to ten times our size – we have the highest amount of feedback. We attribute this to our encouraging people to provide feedback, and the changes we made to the reporting tool to truly make it two-way communication.”
The online feedback has also allowed the Heemans to find out some interesting things.
“Someone provided us with a score of 10/10 for our berries that they bought at a market in St. Thomas and we don’t knowingly sell to anyone at that market,” says Will. “All we know in that case is that the berries were picked the same day this person purchased them. In other cases, if we get a customer saying the berries are poor quality and she purchased them on a Monday but they were picked on a Saturday, we can work with retailers to see how they can get berries to customers closer to picking, or how to keep them fresher along the way.”
Having a traceability system that goes down to the quart also makes payroll far easier to do, saving time and money.
“It also helps as an added factor to the overall differentiation of our berries to others, especially imports,” says Will. “There will always be an added cost to it, mostly for more labels, but overall it’s been wonderful and we are very happy we made the switch.”
In terms of recent challenges for the Heemans, Will lists boosting consumer awareness of the everbearing strawberry as one of the biggest. However, it’s one they welcome as they believe it will have great benefits for them and for the entire strawberry industry.
“We’re also trying to find strong new strawberry cultivars that are bred for growing in our region as existing varieties get older and less productive. Our plans right now for the greenhouse operation are largely focused on making improvements to the facilities and the business layout as well.”
To the Heemans, the Premier’s Awards they’ve received are very meaningful.
“To be selected by a panel of our peers and approved by the government, and to be included with a list of amazing innovators that are leading the way forward for our sector in the province is very rewarding,” Will says. “To be a double-winner is just ‘berry’ sweet!”
April 15, 2015, Tampa, FL – Harvest CROO Robotics is developing and beginning to test the latest technology for agricultural robotics – an automated strawberry picker.
The farming industry, nationwide, has felt the pain and unreliability of human labor. More than $750 million per year is spent in the U.S. picking strawberries alone.
Gary Wishnatzki, co-founder of Harvest CROO and owner of Wish Farms, sees first hand, as a member of the agricultural industry, the imminent need for an automated system for harvesting strawberries.
“I charged our engineers with the task of creating a ‘picker’ that does not require a grower to radically change the way they currently grow," he said. “That is the major reason other robotic harvesters have not yet been commercialized.”
Harvest CROO machines will pick on traditional strawberry beds. Chief technical officer and co-founder, Bob Pitzer, took to the fields to study and observe the way human pickers harvest strawberries. With that information, he began outlining and conceptualizing the first prototype, which mimics the ways humans currently pick.
“With robotic manipulation, our biggest challenge is minimizing time,” he said. “Based on our observations, our goal was to develop robots to pick as many berries as possible while utilizing conservation of motion.”
In Phase I, $1 million was raised through qualified investors, including seven from the strawberry industry. In Phase II, Harvest CROO is seeking to raise $1.5 million to build the next version, the Alpha unit, which will be the predecessor to a production model. The Alpha will not only pick, but also place the berries into consumer packs.
Harvest CROO has a utility and a provisional patent filed.
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