2016 News - Food: food safety and quality

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Research leads to development of innovative harvesting technology to lower production costs for apple growers

Apple production in the U.S. is a multi-billion dollar industry and Michigan ranks third for production yield. Cost of production and access to available labor are two of the greatest obstacles confronting U.S. apple growers, accounting for 50 percent or more of total production costs.

Dr. Renfu Lu is leading a research project being conducted jointly between the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Research Service in-house program and the Michigan State University Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering that’s striving to develop innovative apple harvesting technologies and in-field sorting methods to help apple growers reduce production and labor costs for harvesting and postharvest storage and packing.  Lu’s team built the first self-propelled apple harvesting and automatic in-field sorting prototype machine.

It’s the first machine of its kind to integrate automatic in-field sorting with a harvesting assistance function. As a result, the technology is expected to help growers achieve significant cost and labor savings, compared to the existing harvest assist platforms, through improved harvest efficiency, reduced need for migrant labor, and improved postharvest storage and packing. The machine can automatically handle empty and full bins without the aid of a worker, which will greatly reduce downtime for harvesting crews.

Lower quality fruit is sold at a significantly lower price than fresh market fruit, and mixing inferior or defective fruit with high quality fruit, exposes it to disease and pests. This can result in significant economic loss, especially if intensive postharvest management measures are not implemented. Developing in-field methods for sorting out low quality or inferior fruit at the time of harvest could result in major economic benefits.

The machine developed by Lu and his team also automatically sorts and grades apples into two quality grades, fresh and cull. It has several innovative design features (patent pending) for transporting, singulating, rotating, and sorting/grading fruit. The machine also boasts a new bin filling design, critical for placing graded apples in the bin evenly and gently without bruising the fruit. The bin filler is controlled by an onboard microchip for automatic monitoring and adjustment of the bin filling process.

Photo of in-field apple sorting harvester














In-field apple sorting harvester (2016 season)