Harvesting
June 27, 2017 – Why do the best fruits seem to have the shortest shelf life? It’s a challenge that plagues fresh fruit markets around the world, and has real implications for consumers and fruit growers.

Now, new research from University of Guelph has led to the development of a product that extends the shelf life of fresh fruits by days and even weeks, and it is showing promise in food insecure regions around the world.

“In people and in fruit, skin shrinks with age — it’s part of the life cycle, as the membranes start losing their tightness,” said Jay Subramanian, Professor of Tree Fruit Breeding and Biotechnology at the University of Guelph, who works from the Vineland research station. “Now we know the enzymes responsible for that process can be slowed.”

The secret, according to Subramanian, is in hexanal, a compound that is naturally produced by every plant in the world. His lab has developed a formulation that includes a higher concentration of hexanal to keep fruit fresh for longer.

Subramanian’s research team began experimenting with applying their formula to sweet cherry and peaches in the Niagara region. They found they were able to extend the shelf life of both fruits and spraying the formula directly on the plant prior to harvest worked as well as using it as a dip for newly harvested fruit.

“Even one day makes a huge difference for some crops,” Subramanian said. “In other fruits like mango or banana you can extend it much longer.”Once the formula is available on the market, Subramanian sees applications on fruit farms across Ontario, including U-pick operations, where an extended season would be beneficial. But the opportunities could also make a significant impact on fruit markets around the world.

Subramanian’s research team was one of only 19 projects worldwide awarded an exclusive research grant from the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, a program governed by the International Development Research Centre and funded through Global Affairs Canada.

The team used the funding to collaborate with colleagues in India and Sri Lanka on mango and banana production. Mangos are one of the top five most-produced fruits in the world, with 80 per cent of the production coming from South Asia. After more than three years, researchers learned that by spraying the formula on mangos before harvest, they were able to delay ripening by up to three weeks.

“A farmer can spray half of his farm with this formulation and harvest it two or three weeks after the first part of the crop has gone to market,” Subramanian said. “It stretches out the season, the farmer doesn’t need to panic and sell all of his fruit at once and a glut is avoided. It has a beautiful trickle-down effect because the farmer has more leverage, and the consumer gets good, fresh fruit for a longer period.”

The team is at work in the second phase of the project applying similar principles to banana crops in African and Caribbean countries, and hopes to also tackle papaya, citrus and other fruits.

The formula has been licensed to a company that is completing regulatory applications and is expected to reach the commercial market within three years.
Published in Research
June 13, 2017, Tampa, FL – Harvest CROO Robotics announced the introduction of their autonomous vehicle. This is a major step towards the completion of the Alpha Unit, which is expected to be picking strawberries in Florida next winter.

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.”
Published in Harvesting
June 8, 2017, Vancouver, B.C. – Following a colder, wetter year than the past two seasons, British Columbia’s 700 local blueberry growers are getting ready to start harvesting berries around the first week of July.

“Compared to the last couple of years, it might seem like the B.C. blueberry season is starting late this year. But what we’re expecting in 2017 is actually more in line with the timing of what a ‘normal’ harvest would be,” said BC Blueberry Council board chair Nancy Chong. While picking will start later than last year, a good supply of high-quality blueberries is expected with the season stretching through until mid-September.

The start of the 2017 blueberry harvest in B.C. is expected to be around four weeks later than the start of the 2016 season, when pickers in some areas were out in the field as early as the first week of June.

Much colder temperatures and wetter winter and spring conditions have led to more work in the fields for growers, but made it harder to get out there and take care of tasks such as pruning.

“Last October and November were a bit warmer than usual, but a lot wetter than average, and then in December, we experienced a drastic drop in temperature and high winds. All of these weather conditions resulted in follow-on effects through the winter and spring,” said Chong.

To drive demand for local blueberries in international markets, the British Columbia Blueberry Council continues to regularly attend key international trade shows such as Gulfood in Dubai, Anuga and Fruit Logistica in Germany, Foodex Japan, and Food & Hotel China.
Published in Fruit
May 31, 2017, New Hamburg, Ont. – An Ontario company that developed lunar rovers for the Canadian Space Agency has adapted the technology for use on earth.

The resulting vehicle – called Argo J5 XTR (Xtreme Terrain Robot) — has applications across a variety of industries, including agriculture.

Ontario Drive & Gear Limited (ODG) is well-known to many consumers as the maker of Argo, popular all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) that can travel on rough terrain through land and water.

The Argo J5 XTR is an unmanned robotic platform that travels on rough terrain in a variety of conditions ranging from war zones to underground mines — without putting an individual operator at risk. READ MORE
Published in Production
May 8, 2017, Kelowna, BC – BC Tree Fruits recently announced the company has submitted an application to expand its Winfield packinghouse to allow space for a new apple bagging line.

Once approved, the new line would be ready for operation prior to the 2017 apple crop starting this fall and would expand BC Tree Fruits’ capacity by 30 per cent. READ MORE
Published in Companies
May 4, 2017 – Roughly $4 billion worth of apples are harvested in the U.S. each year. Startup Abundant Robotics hopes to suck up some of it with a machine that vacuums ripe fruit off the tree.

Dan Steere, cofounder and CEO of Abundant, says recent tests in Australia, where apple season is under way, proved that the company’s prototype can spot apples roughly as accurately as a human, and pull them down just as gently. The machine deposits apples in the same large crates that human pickers use. READ MORE
Published in Equipment
After fruit and vegetable producers put so much careful attention and effort into planting and tending their crops and orchards, they naturally want to minimize losses due to bruising, nicks and scrapes, temperature issues and so on.
Published in Harvesting
There is nothing like a just picked, tree-ripened apple. At a BC Tree Fruits (BCTF) field day last fall, I was offered a Honeycrisp the size of a grapefruit. It was the first one I had tried and it lived up to its reputation.
Published in Harvesting
March 24, 2017 – On the long journey from the farm to the retailer's shelf, fruits can quickly perish. In particular, the refrigeration inside the cargo containers is not always guaranteed and existing methods for measuring the temperature are not sufficiently reliable. A sensor developed at Empa solves this problem. It looks like a piece of fruit and acts like a piece of fruit – but is actually a spy.

Some fruit travel long distances by the time they reach shops. They are picked, packaged, refrigerated, packed in refrigerated containers, shipped, stored and finally laid out on display. However, not all the cargo makes it safely to its destination. Although fruit is inspected regularly, some of it is damaged or may even perish during the journey. This is because monitoring still has significant scope for improvement.

Although sensors measure the air temperature in the freight container, it is the core temperature of the individual fruit that is decisive for the quality of the fruit. However, up to now, it has only been possible to measure this "invasively", i.e. by inserting a sensor through the skin and into the centre. And even this process has drawbacks. To carry out the measurement, the technician usually takes a piece of fruit from a cardboard box in the front row of pallets in the container, which in turn distorts the result. Fruit that is closer to the outside of the transport container is better refrigerated than fruit on the inside.

Sometimes whole container loads have to be destroyed because the temperatures on the inside of the container did not meet the prescribed guidelines. The U.S. and China, in particular, are extremely strict regarding the importation of fruit and vegetables. If the cargo has not been stored for three weeks at a certain minimum temperature, it is not authorized for sale in the country. Not only does refrigeration serve to maintain the freshness and quality of the fruit, it also kills any larvae, such as moth larvae, which can nest in the fruit. It is therefore essential to prove that the refrigeration has actually penetrated all the fruit in the whole consignment for the required period of time.

In order to guarantee and monitor the temperature within the fruit, researchers at Empa have now developed an artificial fruit sensor. It is the same shape and size as the relevant fruit and also simulates its composition, and can be packed in with the real fruit and travel with it. On arrival at the destination, the data from the sensor can be analyzed relatively quickly and easily. From this, the researchers hope to gain information about the temperature during transportation.

This is important information, primarily for insurance reasons: if a delivery does not meet the quality requirements, the sensor can be used to establish the point in the storage and transport chain at which something went wrong. Initial results are certainly very promising.

"We analyzed the sensors in the Empa refrigeration chamber in detail and all the tests were successful," explains project leader Thijs Defraeye from the Laboratory for Multiscale Studies in Building Physics.

Up to now, a fruit had to be sliced up and a sensor be placed inside. The "spy fruit" is then stuck back. However, this distorts the results as the fruit is damaged.

However, the same sensor does not work for all fruits, as Defraeye explains.

"We are developing separate sensors for each type of fruit, and even for different varieties," he says.

There are currently separate sensors for the Braeburn and Jonagold apple varieties, the Kent mango, oranges and the classic Cavendish banana. In order to simulate the characteristics of the individual types of fruit, the fruit is X-rayed, and a computer algorithm creates the average shape and texture of the fruit. From the literature or based on their own measurements, the researchers then determine the exact composition of the fruit's flesh (usually a combination of water, air and sugar) and simulate this in exactly the same ratio in the laboratory, although not with the original ingredients, instead using a mixture of water, carbohydrates and polystyrene.

This mixture is used to fill the fruit-shaped sensor mould. The mould is produced on a 3D printer. The researchers place the actual sensor inside the artificial fruit, where it records the data, including the core temperature of the fruit. Existing measuring devices on container walls only provide the air temperature, but this is not sufficiently reliable because the fruit can still be too warm on the inside. Although such fruit core simulators already exist in the field of research, they are not yet sufficiently accurate, explains Defraeye. One such example that has been used is balls filled with water with a sensor inside.

"We have conducted comparative tests," says the researcher. "And our filling provided much more accurate data and simulated the behaviour of a real piece of fruit much more reliably at different temperatures."

Initial field tests on the sensors are currently under way and the researchers are now looking for potential industrial partners to manufacture the fruit spies. The investment is certainly likely to be worthwhile. It is estimated that the cost of such a sensor is less than 50 Swiss Francs. The data would only have to be analyzed if something was wrong with the delivered goods. This would then make it possible to efficiently establish where in the process an error had occurred.

Another desirable feature would be to be able to receive the data from the cargo container live and in real time, so that appropriate countermeasures could be taken in the event of abnormal data – thereby potentially saving the fruit cargo. That would require a wireless or Bluetooth connection.

"However, our current fruit sensor cannot do that yet. And the price of the product would, of course, go up," says Defraeye.

But the profits for the companies would probably also go up if the fruit sensors enabled them to supply more goods in perfect condition.
Published in Research
March 9, 2017, Wenatchee, WA – The Trump administration’s immigration enforcement directives are adding to existing anxiety about U.S. farm labour availability and fueling interest among growers for robots to stand in for migrant workers.

Two technology companies showed off progress on robotic pickers at the International Fruit Tree Association conference in Wenatchee, Wash., in late February. READ MORE

 

Published in Equipment
February 7, 2017, Edmonton, Alta – Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF), in partnership with the Potato Growers of Alberta, is holding a potato post-harvest management workshop at three sites in March.

“Crop and financial losses of stored potatoes has a significant impact on the profitability of fresh and seed potato growers in Alberta,” says Robert Spencer, commercial horticulture specialist, AF. “Participants will learn about potato storage design and management, as well as pre-harvest, post-harvest, in-storage and post-storage disease management information. This will increase their capacity for prolonged quality potato storage, as well as reduce losses that occur in storage or in the post-harvest process.”

The workshop dates are:
  • March 7 – Lethbridge
  • March 8 – Lacombe
  • March 9 – Westlock
A maximum of two attendees from each farm operation may attend. The cost to attend these workshops is $15 per person (plus GST), which includes lunch and a resource binder for each farm operation.

Participants are asked to register in advance by calling the Ag-Info Centre Registration line at 1-800-387-6030 prior to February 28, 2017.
Published in Production
January 31, 2017 – Online grocer Ocado has shown off a soft robotic hand that can pick fruit and vegetables, without damaging them, in its warehouses.

The firm has an automated warehouse in Andover, Hampshire, where robots select crates containing specific items that make up customer orders. READ MOR
Published in Research

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.

This year, he purchased a Spudnik AirSep Harvester, a piece of equipment instead that eliminates one of the more mundane tasks of the potato harvest — separating the rocks from the spuds. READ MORE

Published in Harvesting

October 18, 2016, Centreville, NS – A new, hand-held device reminiscent of Star Trek's tricorder scanning device is telling Nova Scotian farmers when an apple is perfect for picking.

The results are already transforming the province's apple industry. READ MORE

Published in Provinces

August 22, 2016, Alliston, Ont – The 2016 Ontario Potato Field Day, hosted on August 18 by HJV Equipment in Alliston, was a very successful event.

Approximately 250 growers, crop consultants and potato-industry personnel gathered in a friendly atmosphere to see the latest potato equipment, new potato varieties and the trade show. Potato growers from Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Quebec also attended the event.

More than 100 new potato varieties were on display, including for the fresh, processing and specialty markets. For the fresh market, the variety Actrice (Real Potatoes) caught the attention of many growers because of its attractive tubers with smooth, shiny skin. Actrice is an early, yellow-fleshed variety that is very tasty. Primabelle and Panamera (HZPC Americas) are two yellow-fleshed varieties that got good reviews from potato growers.

Among the russet potatoes for the French fry market, Alta Strong (Real Potatoes) and Pomerelle Russet (Pommes de Terre Laurentiennes) were well rated by growers. There was interest in Kalmia (La Patate Lac Saint-Jean) a white-fleshed, fresh-market variety that could also be used as a French fryer.

Double Fun (HZPC Americas) had the nicest skin among the purple-fleshed varieties. It also has very good culinary traits.

Among the trade show exhibitors, the Quebec company Lab’eau-Air-Sol demonstrated the use of spore traps for foliar diseases of vegetables. Douglas Ag Services provided the latest information on chloropicrin application to control soil-borne diseases. Displays by Gorman Controls (PEI) and GRB Ag Technologies (Ontario) focused on storage management.

Potato growers attend this important annual event to obtain practical, up-to-date information on varieties and the latest potato production technology. It is also a chance for growers to meet in a friendly, informal setting to discuss problems.

Published in Food Safety

 

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.

 

 

 

Published in Harvesting

 

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.”

 

 

 

Published in Harvesting

 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.”

Why?

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.

 

 

 

Published in Harvesting

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.”

Published in Harvesting

 

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.”

 

 

 

Published in Harvesting
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