When Washington State University cherry scientists designed a research project to monitor how much hand pickers were harvesting, the idea wasn't to create a potentially new commercial tool.
Yet, some involved in the cherry study think there is promise to do just that with a system which utilizes worker ID bracelets to automatically register how much is in each bucket dumped into a bin during each trip from the tree.
Harvest efficiency tests used last year in Washington and Oregon orchards make use of a reader on the bin which tells which worker is dumping cherries, and a scale under the bin that registers how much weight is in each of the picking buckets workers unload after separate trips from the trees.
"This may have the potential of replacing the manual cards punched each time a picker dumps a bucket," says WSU horticulturist Matt Whiting, who heads up the cherry research project.
What the computerized system could do is record the daily harvests of each worker, reducing the need for some paperwork. Additionally, the weighing system would provide an accurate reading on which workers are filling their buckets heaviest – one indication some feel is a mark of a superior worker.
Currently, the checkoff system only shows that a picker has dumped a bucket, but does not reflect the weight in that bucket. The test system shows that the bucket loads vary from 17-21 pounds in weight. As one producer put it at a recent meeting reviewing the system, "that four pounds less costs us money," since the low-weight worker is not performing up to potential.
Since cherry picking crews account for as much as 70% of a producer's overall annual cost of production, finding ways to become more efficient in the harvest is of great interest to the industry, which is also looking hard at replacing hand laborers with a mechanical harvester.
"This was designed as a research tool, but it could become a grower tool commercially," observes Whiting.
There is great interest in improving harvest efficiency and traceability in specialty crop production, says Whiting. "These crops are characterized generally by high costs of production, heavy dependence upon manual labor, and high crop value.
"This research … is studying the role of key harvest efficiency factors in sweet cherries. It will help us to better understand the relative importance of harvest efficiency factors and to develop more efficient harvest systems."
Among the information generated in the study is the age and gender of pickers, as well as their years of experience, the cultivar they are picking on any particular day, the tree row design, their pay rate, the average of their bucket volume, and the number of bins that worker fill per day.
The tree row design, or architecture of the trees (trellis system, uprights, horizontal configuration, etc.) information is important, says Whiting, because it shows how well each type of tree row affects worker efficiency.
For more on this story, see the December issue of Western Farmer-Stockman.