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Orchard Automation, Nuking Foodborne Illness, Short Course

Posted by | July 20, 2011

Saving Labor (and Lives) in the Orchard

Desiging machines to pick fruit -- especially in high-density orchards such as this one near Wenatchee -- may save growers money and, while eliminating tedious and dangerous labor, create new, high-skill jobs. Photo by Brian Charles Clark
Designing machines to pick fruit -- especially in high-density orchards such as this one near Wenatchee -- may save growers money and, while eliminating tedious and dangerous labor, create new, high-skill jobs.

When I was younger, I used to enjoy picking a pint or two of huckleberries in the mountains in the summer. But even when you work hard, huckleberry picking doesn’t yield a lot of fruit per day. Picking raspberries goes faster because the fruit is larger and the berries grow more thickly on the plant. And picking apples is faster still, with output measured in bushels rather than pints.

Still, it’s one thing to pick a bag of apples from an old tree by the side of a gravel road. It’s quite another to spend all day in an orchard trying to earn a living climbing ladders and harvesting box after box of fruit.

All agricultural work is both demanding and dangerous, and working in orchards is one of the most difficult tasks in modern agriculture. Indeed, it’s such hard work that a lot of Americans simply can’t or won’t do it, which leads to labor shortages and immigration issues we continue to fail to come to terms with.

It’s interesting to note we’d never considering harvesting grain fields by hand. I live in a small town surrounded by fields of wheat. At the end of the summer, large and complex machines reap the grain in the field, then thresh it, and finally winnow it. The three-step process is automatic, done on-the-fly as the combine harvester rumbles across the wheat field.

Why not use machines to harvest fruit in an orchard? We could free people from the back-breaking tedium of picking fruit by hand, training them instead to operate the machines that could do the heavy labor both more quickly and more safely. Lower-priced produce could then benefit all of us.

The good news is that agricultural engineers across the nation are making real progress toward exactly that goal. In the process, they’ve found it useful to change trees themselves. Here’s the story.

Machines operate most easily in unchanging conditions. Lawn mowers work because grass in a lawn makes up a pretty uniform surface. Mowers can’t cope with truly major bumps or depressions.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard.

One challenge for creating machines that could help us harvest fruit in an orchard is that traditionally fruit trees have all been quite different. They are “bumpy,” you might say, with this particular tree pruned years ago in one way, while that tree over there has a different shape due to different growth and pruning.

So the first step in moving toward the mechanization of orchards has been creating trees that are much more similar to one another. Along the way it’s also been useful to make the trees shorter. After all, there’s no need to have a 22-foot tall apple tree, with its fruit way up off the ground, when a much shorter tree will do.

Another step forward hinged on what I think is a truly clever idea. Instead of letting the trees grow in their usual, three-dimensional structure, the ag engineers had them pruned to keep them growing upward in just two-dimensions. You could say these trees make thin apple “hedges” in an orchard.
With that innovation, the next step is to design mechanical pickers that can move along the thin rows of short trees, reaching out and picking the fruit.

One idea is to use camera sensors to determine where a piece of fruit is, and then power a robotic-arm that can pick it individually. Before you think that’s too fanciful to be true, remember your car was welded together by robotic arms.

Dr. Qin Zhang of Washington State University works on agricultural automation issues including the goal of mechanically harvesting fruit trees.

“People all over the word are putting great effort into developing mechanical fruit harvesters. I will not be surprised if we see mechanically harvested apples in the stores in ten years,” he said to me recently.

Although mechanizing agriculture always entails periods of economic adjustment for all concerned, I’ve got to wish Dr. Zhang the best. The equivalent of a combine harvester for fruit would be a labor-saving device that could help a lot of people in several ways, both in the field and in the grocery store.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

If you aren’t reading the Rock Doc in your local paper, ask for her — or check out Dr. Peter’s weekly column online. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU.

Reducing Foodborne Illness With Microwaves

Juming Tang and his colleagues are part of a nationwide effort to reduce foodborne illness using microwave technology.
Juming Tang and his colleagues are part of a nationwide effort to reduce foodborne illness using microwave technology.

Using newly-developed microwave technologies to control bacteria and other microbes that can cause food-borne illnesses and deaths will be the focus of a $5 million, multi-year, multi-institutional grant recently awarded to Washington State University and its partners by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“While the U.S. food supply is generally considered to be one of the safest in the world, approximately 48 million Americans become sick each year due to food-borne illnesses,” said Dr. Catherine Woteki, USDA chief scientist and under secretary for research, education and economics. “These grants support the development of a more complete understanding of the sources and implications of microbial contamination and will promote the adoption of new food safety strategies and technologies. The goal is to greatly improve the safety of our food supply and, ultimately, save lives.”

WSU scientists will join forces with researchers at the University of Tennessee, North Carolina State University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Eastern Regional Center and the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center. The team will look at how best to expand the commercial possibilities of microwave technologies to control harmful bacterial and viral pathogens in packaged foods. They specifically will be working with ready-to-eat foods, deli meats and seafood.

The award drew praise and approval from both the public and private sector.

“I have been proud to secure investments in this great project, which provided the foundational research that allowed WSU to have the expertise to win this competitive grant. This new technology will keep families safe and will create good jobs right here in Washington state,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. “WSU is doing great work turning top-notch research into products that will increase food safety for America’s consumers and boost the local economy, and I am proud to be their partner in those efforts.”

Tang said the project has several key components. “The goal of this integrated project is to bridge the scientific and engineering gaps that currently limit commercial applications of microwave technologies for the control of bacterial and viral pathogens in packaged foods,” he said. “We are pleased to have been able to team up with leading experts in food microbiology at the University of Tennessee, food safety risk assessment at USDA-ARS Eastern Regional Center, sensory studies at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center and project progress assessment at North Carolina State, as well with our industrial partners, including Seafoods Products Association and the International Microwave Power Institute.”

P. Michael Davidson, professor and head of food science and technology at UT, said, “We are extremely pleased to be working with someone of the caliber of Dr. Juming Tang as well as the other outstanding collaborators on this exciting research project. The information generated, along with the processes and equipment developed, will go a long way towards providing increased protection of consumers from food-borne illnesses caused by bacterial and viral pathogens.”

By Kathy Barnard

Learn more about engineering as applied to biological systems by visiting www.bsyse.wsu.edu.

Artificial Insemination School at WSU Pullman Aug. 11-13

Need a short course on artificial insemination? Check on the one offered by WSU experts this August.
Need a short course on artificial insemination? Check on the one offered by WSU experts this August.

WSU animal science experts are offering an artificial insemination short course in Pullman, Aug. 11 – 13. The course will be taught by David deAvila, a WSU research technician who has extensive experience in AI and in teaching AI to WSU undergraduates. The course will be limited to 20 people and the deadline to enroll is July 15.

Tuition is $400 per person, regardless of time of arrival, which covers animal costs and supplies. The minimum age for participation is 15; all students under the age of 18 must have to have a parent or designated guardian with them.

WSU professor of animal sciences Kris Johnson said, “Some people will want to learn this from the beginning while others just need a refresher. Artificial insemination providers used to offer this info, but some don’t have the facilities any more. We wanted to meet the needs of smaller producers in the industry.”

Participants may arrive at their convenience and join the class from Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m. through Friday at noon. Course organizers strongly recommend that people with no AI experience come on Thursday for the extra time and instruction. Those looking for a refresher course are advised to arrive no later than noon on Friday. Classroom instruction in reproductive physiology, semen handling, estrus synchronization and heat checking will be given.

To enroll, visit www.ansci.wsu.edu and click the AI School link to fill out the registration form. The deadline for registration is July 15.