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.”
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