Agriculture Forum: Orchard mechanization workshop set for April 7

A Windigger K7e Alpin orchard platform.

The Benzie-Manistee Horticultural Society and Michigan State University Extension have teamed up to host an orchard mechanization workshop and demonstration on April 7.

The event is sponsored in part by the Michigan State Horticultural Society. The day will begin with educational presentations in the morning followed by a chance for growers to observe hedger and platform equipment from four different vendors operating in local apple and cherry orchards.

As tree fruit orchards across the globe have been transitioning to modern high-density systems, farm mechanization has helped increase efficiency of farm tasks.

High-density orchards consist of a narrow canopy and a trellis support structure. These new orchard systems are more of a fruiting wall than individual trees in a field. They result in more uniform distribution of fruit, making harvest-assist technologies more advantageous than picking fruit on large trees with cumbersome ladders. Narrow, continuous rows provide an alley for smaller mechanized equipment, such as platforms and hedgers. Using machines can improve production efficiency by decreasing the time and labor needed for specific tasks.

As the name implies, a platform is a raised-level surface that workers can use to gain more access into the upper tree canopy for pruning, tying branches to trellis wires, hanging pest monitoring and management devices, and installing wires on trellis systems. Most importantly, platforms assist with harvest. Platforms increase harvest efficiency and can eliminate the need for ladders — thereby minimizing orchard hazards and worker fatigue.

Mechanical orchard hedging is also gaining popularity in high-density orchards.

Unlike traditional pruning, which is typically completed when trees are dormant in the winter and early spring, growers hedge trees in the summer to keep canopies narrow and to allow sunlight to reach the fruit, which helps the fruit color and ripen. Summer-hedged trees maintain a compact and tidy structure that makes pruning during the following dormant season more manageable — particularly for growers who drive platforms and narrow tractors down the narrow orchard rows.

Like most farm equipment, there are a variety of platform brands and models, each with numerous bells and whistles such as hydraulic or manual height-and-width adjustments, elevator and fork features, auto-pilot driving and towing capabilities. Hedger features can also be complex, but one of the most important factors is whether the hedger has one or two blades that either work like a sickle or scissors in cutting action.

There are advantages to each example of equipment that will be on display on April 7.

We are greatly appreciative to the vendors that will be a part of the annual Benzie Manistee Horticulture Society meeting: Gillison’s Variety Fabrication, Precise Ag, Phil Brown Welding and Louis Gelder and Sons Company.

Call the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center at 231-946-1510 to register for this event. Registration costs $30 per person and includes lunch.

For an additional fee of $20 per person, attendees may to attend dinner and the Benzie-Manistee Horticultural Society annual meeting that will be held at The Fusion restaurant in Frankfort.

Emily Pochubay is a fruit integrated pest management educator with Michigan State University Extension.

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