Chinese chestnut is an attractive niche crop in the United States because of its potential for high yields and ease of production, resulting in substantial economic returns (Gold et al., 2006; Warmund, 2011). In a survey conducted in 2006, most chestnut growers in the United States (64%) had small orchards (<10 acres) and had been producing this crop for less than 10 years (Gold et al., 2006). Presently, fewer than five growers with more than 10 acres use large harvest equipment. In the western United States, mechanized hazelnut sweeper-type harvesters (Weis McNair, Chico, CA) are used in orchards with a bare soil surface. However, this equipment is not an effective harvester in the midwestern or eastern United States where groundcovers are needed in chestnut orchards to minimize soil erosion. A mechanized pecan harvester (Savage, Madill, OK) has also been tested, but was ineffective because it fails to pick up many of the flat-sided chestnuts (K.L. Hunt, unpublished data). Large-scale self-propelled chestnut harvesters that pick up the crop and separate nuts from burs are available in Europe, but the equipment and shipping are cost-prohibitive for most new growers in the United States.
Thus, for small-scale (<10 acres) chinese chestnut producers, harvest is problematic. Up to 50% of the cost of production in a bearing chestnut orchard is for harvest labor (L.D. Godsey, unpublished data). Chinese chestnuts are generally harvested from the ground every other day to prevent nut decay and depredation from wildlife. Often the only affordable manual harvesting tool is a Nut Wizard (Holt’s Nut Wizard, Douglas, GA) or hand harvest with a pair of leather gloves to avoid skin punctures from spiny burs. Part-time seasonal labor is often scarce due to the physical nature of the work, and it is difficult to hire employees who may be available only after school or weekends during the September and October harvest season. Because of the high labor requirements for harvest, alternative low-cost equipment that hastens the pickup time for chestnuts would be useful.
Relatively inexpensive pasture vacuum systems, developed to collect horse manure, are commercially available and may provide an efficient method to pick up chestnuts and burs. Thus, this study was conducted to compare the time required to harvest chestnuts with paddock vacuums and with a Nut Wizard, as well as evaluate the economic feasibility of using this equipment.
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