Even today, apple harvesting is a ladder-ridden activity. Apple pickers are constantly moving ladders; trying to find firm footings so that they can scramble up the rungs, remove the fruit and then scramble back down again to dump their harvest.
Even today, apple harvesting is a ladder-ridden activity. Apple pickers are constantly moving ladders; trying to find firm footings so that they can scramble up the rungs, remove the fruit and then scramble back down again to dump their harvest. The work is hard, tiring and dangerous when poorly placed ladders fall over.
Aylmer, Ontario, fruit farmer Maurice VandenBorre is no fan of apple harvesting’s old ways. This is why the owner of VandenBorre Fruit Farms decided to come up with something different over 20 years ago. His answer: working with a German engineer, VandenBorre designed and built a one-of-a-kind self-propelled apple harvester. Equipped with two hydraulically controlled platforms, VandenBorre’s apple harvester allows the pickers to mechanically raise and lower themselves to get at the best apples. The result is a much safer and more productive workflow – and no ladders.
For his efforts, VandenBorre received a 2008 Premier’s Agri-Food Innovation Excellence Award from the Province of Ontario. “Less jostling of both the operator and fruit results in fewer bruised apples and elbows,” says the award citation. “The unit has helped speed up harvesting and is used by the farm seven months of the year.”
Maurice VandenBorre’s self-propelled harvester is one of the most unusual farming implements you will likely ever see. Imagine a four-wheeled truck chassis; just the wheels, engine and frame – no chairs, doors, or windows included. Onto this chassis is built a tall, steel frame. The frame provides support for a wide, flat platform across the chassis. This is where the driver stands, and anyone else who needs to walk along the steel running boards on either side. The platform also supports wooden harvest bins, where the harvesters can offload their apples. The gasoline-powered engine is mounted in the centre of the chassis.
The frame reaches up vertically, both to provide structural strength and to support a wide overhead roof to protect the two harvesters. They ride on two platforms attached to backhoe-style hydraulic arms; one mounted on either side of the vehicle, and based at the rear for balance.
The apple harvester is propelled by “an engine we salvaged from an estate wagon,” says VandenBorre. “Given the need to drive the hydraulics, the engine has been set up such the harvester only travels about two miles-per-hour, maximum.
“There is a small motor mounted below the steering wheel that controls the cylinder that actually turns the wheels,” he adds. “It’s not quite power steering, but it’s close.”
In practice, the harvester tends to roll forward at about an eighth of a mile per hour, to give the apple pickers lots of time to move about. It is controlled by a field foreman, who steers using a steering wheel mounted on one of the vertical supports. He also controls the hydraulics for the pickers, so they can focus on the apples. Meanwhile, the bins are offloaded to nearby trucks when they are full, without the harvester having to leave the orchard.
Why a harvester?
As mentioned earlier, Maurice VandenBorre doesn’t like ladders. “They’re just too dangerous for apple picking,” he says. But why did this aversion lead to the creation of VandenBorre’s self-propelled apple picker? There are a few good answers to this question.
The first answer is ease of use. A self-propelled and controlled apple harvester allows VandenBorre’s crews to work from a single integrated platform, one that glides nicely between his rows of wired-mounted apple branches.
“I grew up using wires in Belgium, and then found that the North American model allowed too much shading on the lower apples,” he says. “By training the branches along wires, I can reduce the shading and thus ensure that lower apples get the right amount of colour. I can also increase the density of my orchard – we have about 36,000 dwarf trees on 33 acres – while ensuring that the apples are easy to pick.”
The second answer is flexibility: On their hydraulically controlled platforms, the pickers can go after the ripest apples only, whatever height the apples might be at. This allows VandenBorre to pick apples when they are ripe, and to do so during multiple pickings. The result is a better quality harvest that commands a better price at market.
Product protection is the third advantage offered by the apple harvester. “With this system, the pickers can return to the harvester platform and gently put their apples into the collection bins,” says VandenBorre. “This means less bumping and bruising, which again results in a better quality harvest.”
The fourth big plus of the self-propelled apple harvester is productivity. It may not look pretty, but this machine is far more efficient than a crew of pickers toting ladders.
“We can pick a lot more apples, yet do so more safely and with less product damage than the traditional method,” he says. “Without this machine, there is no way we could harvest all of our trees with the people we have.”
Why you can’t buy a VandenBorre at your local dealer
Maurice VandenBorre’s self-propelled apple picker has become a bit of a legend in apple circles.
“People come and visit me from all over the world – especially from Africa – to see how it works,” he laughs. “They always have lots of questions. They want to know where they can buy their own apple harvester.”
So why hasn’t VandenBorre got into the apple harvester manufacturing business?
“I did build a larger version of this machine that carried 12 people, but it cost me too much money,” he replies.
“As for launching a manufacturing company? I am 79 years old and I don’t need that kind of headache. I am happy with what I’ve got and I like being an apple farmer. If someone else wants to set up a company, I’d be happy to show them the plans.”
In the meantime, Maurice VandenBorre’s apple harvester will continue to trundle its way down his orchard rows in Aylmer. The machine isn’t elegant – in fact it is rusty and angular – but 20 years on, the self-propelled apple harvester does its job like nothing else on earth.❦
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