Using harvesting platforms to broaden the workforce

Andrew Smith (left) and his father Ian. Andrew is a fourth-generation farmer. - Photo: R&R Smith
Andrew Smith (left) and his father Ian. Andrew is a fourth-generation farmer. - Photo: R&R Smith

Australian company R&R Smith is using four harvesting platforms in its orchards. It opened up the workforce and improved the fruit quality in the bin.

The Smith family has been growing apples in the Huon Valley of Tasmania since 1988. R&R Smith went organic in 1998. “We needed to survive”, says fourth-generation farmer Andrew Smith. “We are as far away from the rest of the world and volume markets as you can possibly get. And the apple industry has been in demise for decades.”

At the start of the COVID pandemic, travel restrictions and a shortage of overseas workers pushed R&R Smith to think of a solution. “A hundred percent of our workers were backpackers”, Mr Smith explains. “Certainly for harvesting. When COVID kicked in, we lost all our workers. We needed to make a change.”

REVÓ harvesting platforms

In 2020 the company decided to buy two cof Italian manufacturer REVÓ. The platforms were promoted as an alternative to ladders at the time in Australia and cost 150,000 dollar each. “We invested in the platforms to reduce the need for fit strong motivated staff. The government had just changed the tax laws, so that all our costs could be written of our tax. These two things made our decision really easy.”

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The platforms are not fully robotic, but use 4-wheel drive and an auto-leveling system. - Photo: R&R Smith
The platforms are not fully robotic, but use 4-wheel drive and an auto-leveling system. - Photo: R&R Smith

Growing higher trees

Picking platforms are becoming more popular in Australia. There are at least 14 of these harvesting platforms across Tasmania. R&R Smith started with two REVÓ Piuma platforms, and that proved to be a game changer for the company. Now the company owns four of these platforms.

“They are not fully robotic, but they use 4-wheel drive and an auto-leveling system”, Mr Smith says. “They work well. They can be set up for harvesting, with belts and a bin filler. And they can be set up for pruning and thinning as well.”

It opens the workforce up to a wider age bracket

Using the platform makes picking physically easier. “It definitely broadens the workforce”, Mr Smith points out. “They are no longer necessarily young fit persons, who we used to favour. It opens the workforce up to a wider age bracket.”

“And there’s an occupational health and safety advantage”, Mr Smits says. “Ladders have been a challenge for many years, particularly in Tasmania, where our orchards are not flat. We are a mountainous island. And there is always a desire in orchards to grow higher trees, so we can pick more volume. With platforms that decision is easy.”

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The harvesting platform makes picking physically easier. Ladders have been a challenge for many years. - Photo: R&R Smith
The harvesting platform makes picking physically easier. Ladders have been a challenge for many years. - Photo: R&R Smith

Less bruising

Mr Smith emphasises that R&R Smith gets much use out of the platforms inside the harvest and outside the harvest. “We enjoy the opportunity to prune and hand-thin of them. Thinning is a big manual labour component of organic production. And we have reduced bruising the apples. Bruising is one of the biggest management issues of harvesting fruit in the world. Using the platforms, with simple management, you can easily reduce to bruising to zero most of the time.”

Fruit quality

Mr Smith says the use of the platforms meant R&R Smith has made a strategic shift away from mainly ladders. “But we have some refining to do. We have opened up the workforce and improved the fruit quality in the bin but we probably haven’t maximised the efficiency of the platforms. The learning continues. We have six people on a platform and it is important to put good teams together for example.”

Automation needs to be our plan B

Mr Smith also expects the presence of robots will grow in Tasmanian orchards in the near future. “Not because this brings necessarily a cost benefit, but because it will mean that ultimately the job will be done. We are currently going through a paradigm shift, where manual labour is premium, particularly in these hard jobs. We are struggling to have an available workforce. Automation needs to be our plan B. Change is the only constant. It will be interesting to see where the change goes next.”

Groeneveld
René Groeneveld Correspondent for Australia
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