Mechanically Harvesting Hard Cider Apples Is More Economically Favorable than Hand Harvesting, Regardless of Farm Scale

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  • 1 School of Integrative Plant Science - Horticulture, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853

Harvesting labor is the largest annual variable operating expense for apple (Malus ×domestica) orchard enterprises and is subject to escalating costs and shortages. In Europe, much of the cider apple harvesting is done with machinery, greatly reducing production costs. However, despite a rapid increase in hard cider production in North America over the past 15 years, mechanical cider apple harvesting has not been widely implemented. In this study, we compared mechanical with hand harvesting costs for model 5-, 15-, and 60-acre cider apple orchards located in New York using a partial budget model. Scale-appropriate harvesters were identified for use at each farm scale. Sensitivity analyses were used to test the cost differential for using each piece of machinery on varying orchard sizes and to model changes in labor costs. Across all orchard scales, we found that mechanically harvesting cider apples was more profitable than hand harvesting, with larger operations breaking even sooner and realizing greater returns than operations using hand harvesting. Mechanical harvesting costs broke even with hand harvesting in years 16, 7, and 5 and by year 30 reduced cumulative harvesting costs by 23%, 52%, and 53% in our 5-, 15-, and 60-acre model orchards, respectively. Increasing the orchard size resulted in greater returns from mechanical harvesting. Using the machinery in the 15-acre orchard scenario on a 30-acre farm resulted in costs breaking even with hand harvesting in year 3; by year 30, the cumulative costs resulted in 66% lower harvesting costs than hand labor. Mechanical harvesting remained profitable when labor wages were decreased and became more profitable in scenarios with increasing wages. For example, in the 60-acre orchard, mechanical harvesting cost 41% less than hand harvesting with a 2% annual compounding decrease in labor wages; with 2% annual compounding increase in labor wages, the mechanical harvesting cost was 63% less than hand harvesting. In addition to the cost savings, mechanical harvesting allows for harvesting cider apples with fewer logistical challenges, such as contracting, housing, and transporting migrant labor.

Abstract

Harvesting labor is the largest annual variable operating expense for apple (Malus ×domestica) orchard enterprises and is subject to escalating costs and shortages. In Europe, much of the cider apple harvesting is done with machinery, greatly reducing production costs. However, despite a rapid increase in hard cider production in North America over the past 15 years, mechanical cider apple harvesting has not been widely implemented. In this study, we compared mechanical with hand harvesting costs for model 5-, 15-, and 60-acre cider apple orchards located in New York using a partial budget model. Scale-appropriate harvesters were identified for use at each farm scale. Sensitivity analyses were used to test the cost differential for using each piece of machinery on varying orchard sizes and to model changes in labor costs. Across all orchard scales, we found that mechanically harvesting cider apples was more profitable than hand harvesting, with larger operations breaking even sooner and realizing greater returns than operations using hand harvesting. Mechanical harvesting costs broke even with hand harvesting in years 16, 7, and 5 and by year 30 reduced cumulative harvesting costs by 23%, 52%, and 53% in our 5-, 15-, and 60-acre model orchards, respectively. Increasing the orchard size resulted in greater returns from mechanical harvesting. Using the machinery in the 15-acre orchard scenario on a 30-acre farm resulted in costs breaking even with hand harvesting in year 3; by year 30, the cumulative costs resulted in 66% lower harvesting costs than hand labor. Mechanical harvesting remained profitable when labor wages were decreased and became more profitable in scenarios with increasing wages. For example, in the 60-acre orchard, mechanical harvesting cost 41% less than hand harvesting with a 2% annual compounding decrease in labor wages; with 2% annual compounding increase in labor wages, the mechanical harvesting cost was 63% less than hand harvesting. In addition to the cost savings, mechanical harvesting allows for harvesting cider apples with fewer logistical challenges, such as contracting, housing, and transporting migrant labor.

In the United States, bulk commodity crop harvesting, such as corn (Zea mays L.) and soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.], has been largely mechanized, improving efficiency and limiting dependence on manual labor. Conversely, with just a few exceptions, horticultural crops, such as fruits and vegetables, are still largely dependent on migrant harvest labor (USDA, 2020a). The costs and challenges associated with seasonal migrant labor have driven the adoption of mechanical harvesters for perennial crops, such as blueberries (Vaccinium sp.), juice and wine grapes (Vitis labrusca L. and Vitis vinifera L.), and tart or sour cherries (Prunus cerasus L.), particularly when the fruit is destined for processing. The propensity for apples (Malus ×domestica) to bruise has impeded the development and widespread adoption of mechanical harvesters for either processing or fresh-market apples grown in the United States. However, in Europe, which has a long-standing cider (fermented apple juice, also frequently referred to as hard cider) industry, cider apples are mostly harvested mechanically (Merwin et al., 2008).

In the United States, the production of cider has increased over 10-fold in size since 2005 (Brager and Crompton, 2017). Over 48 million gallons of cider were produced in the United States in 2019 by nearly 1000 independent cideries (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, 2020; West, 2020). The emerging cider sector has created a supply chain imbalance of low supply and high demand for cider apples (Pashow, 2018). This imbalance is driven by the lack of specialized cider apples being grown in the United States; these cultivars are used specifically for cider making and typically have high tannin concentrations that make them bitter and astringent. Although these characteristics are beneficial for making artisanal-style cider, they limit these cultivars from being sold for fresh consumption. To increase supply, cider producers have sought to forge relationships and contracts with culinary apple growers who already have the infrastructure and skills to grow apples (Becot et al., 2016). However, the opportunity cost of growing cider vs. fresh-market cultivars may be impeding the planting of new cider orchards (i.e., it may be deemed less profitable to grow cider-specific cultivars than other fresh-market apples) (Becot et al., 2018; Farris et al., 2013). This is despite at least one recent study showing that the current prices for cider apples made five out of six operations profitable in New York (Peck and Knickerbocker, 2018). Nonetheless, mechanizing cider apple harvesting could reduce operating costs, thus increasing profitability.

Fruit-harvesting labor is typically the largest annual expense for U.S. apple orchards, costing as much as $2983/acre (Galinato and Gallardo, 2020; White et al., 2009). Additionally, migrant labor for harvesting is becoming more expensive, scarce, and uncertain (Calvin and Martin, 2010; Zahniser et al., 2018). Between 2010 and 2020, nonsupervisory agricultural labor wages rose 19.7%, with an annually compounding increase of 1.8%; however, between 2019 and 2020 wages rose 4.7% (USDA–ERS, 2021). Additionally, the average age of the migrant laborer increased from 37 years in 2008 to 42 years in 2020, which increases the concerns for injury and attrition due to the strenuous nature of traditional apple harvesting with buckets and ladders (Earle-Richardson et al., 2006; USDA, 2020b). The H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program from the federal government is designed to allow farmers to secure and contract legal migrant labor. As of 2019, only 10% of farm workers in the United States were estimated to be contracted through H-2A (Costa and Martin, 2020). In contrast, apple harvesting appears to be more dependent on H-2A labor, especially in some regions of the country, than other parts of the agricultural sector. For example, 48% of respondents in a 2015 survey of New York state apple growers indicated that they used H-2A labor for harvesting (Baker et al., 2015). In Washington state, only 14% of harvesting labor was contracted through H-2A in 2015; however, this is a large increase from the previously measured 4% of harvesting labor contracted through H-2A 5 years prior (ECONorthwest, 2017). Despite its growing popularity, the H-2A program has been criticized for its bureaucratic and regulatory burdens, including the requirement that hiring farms or labor contractors house and transport laborers, and the inflexibility of the timing, duration, and size of the contracted work force (Barth, 2017). Sourcing labor through the H-2A program can be especially problematic when harvesting needs change unexpectedly due to weather and/or market demands.

Mechanical harvesting fresh-market apples has been studied since the 1970s, but it has proven difficult to develop machinery that can efficiently harvest fruit without bruising (Sarig, 1993; Zhang et al., 2016). Only recently have machines become commercially available for fresh-market apple harvesting that use tubes with vacuum suction instead of picking buckets, and robotic prototypes are being developed (Peck and Miles, 2015; Silwal et al., 2017). However, machines and robots designed to not bruise apples are likely to be cost prohibitive for cider apple producers. Using less expensive machines that might bruise fruit is not problematic for apples destined to be used for cider (Alexander et al., 2016, 2019). In Europe, mechanical apple harvesters that collect fruit from the orchard floor have been used for decades to harvest fruit for the cider industry (Zhang et al., 2016). The relatively recent emergence of the cider industry, a small number of cider-specific orchards, and food safety regulations all contribute to the current lack of mechanical harvesting in North America. Nonetheless, many different makes and models of apple harvesters are commercially available, including motor-assisted walk-behind models that fill totes; small, maneuverable, self-propelled harvesters with dumping hoppers; attachments that turn tractors into high-capacity harvesters; and massive self-propelled harvesters with multiton-capacity tow-behind trailers (Table 1; Figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

(A) A cable shaker produced by AMB Rousset (Beaulieu, France) was modeled for use in the 5-acre orchard. Although the purchase cost is less than hydraulic shakers, an operator needs to physically attach and then detach the cable from the tree trunk, reducing the operating capacity of this machine. (B) The SL81e hydraulic shaker manufactured by Tuthill Temperley (Banbury, UK) was used for all orchard models. A mechanically operated arm that clamps onto the tree trunk and hydraulic pumps to shake the tree. (C) The 70R manufactured by Feucht-Obsttechnik (Burgstetten, Germany) was selected as the small harvester modeled for use in the 5-acre orchard. It is a 13-horsepower (9.7 kJ·s−1), self-propelled harvester with a 48-gal (181.7 L) high-dumping bin. (D) The Grouse manufactured by Pattenden Machinery (Ledbury, UK) was modeled as the medium harvester used in the 15-acre orchard. It is a three-wheeled harvester that is small and maneuverable enough to operate on hilly terrain and with orchards with narrower row spacing. It is outfitted with windrowing sweepers and a 0.5-ton hopper with a hydraulic lifting arm. (E) The Falcon, manufactured by Pattenden Machinery, is a high-capacity, self-propelled apple harvester selected as the large harvester for use in the 60-acre orchard. It can harvest more than 100 tons of apples per day from the ground and has a 2.2-ton hydraulic high-dump bucket; 1 acre = 0.4047 ha, 1 ton = 0.9072 t.

Citation: HortTechnology 32, 4; 10.21273/HORTTECH04988-21

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Cumulative harvest cost over 30 years for a 5-acre (2.0 ha) model cider apple orchard using hand labor (Hand), a cable shaker and small mechanical harvester (Cable), or a hydraulic shaker and small mechanical harvester (Hydraulic).

Citation: HortTechnology 32, 4; 10.21273/HORTTECH04988-21

Table 1.

Cost, work capacity, and features of European cider apple tree shakers and mechanical harvesters currently available for purchase in the United States.

Table 1.

Mechanically harvesting cider apples typically follows three steps: 1) apple trees are shaken to drop fruit to the ground, 2) the fruit is windrowed, and 3) fruit is collected into bins or trailers. Two types of shakers are used to drop apples from trees. Cable shakers work by manually wrapping a cable around the tree trunk, and the power takeoff (PTO) of the tractor shakes the tree (Fig. 1). Hydraulic arm shakers use a brace that grabs hold of the trunk and shakes the tree with the hydraulic system. Hydraulic shakers are much faster and easier to use than cable shakers but are more expensive to purchase (Table 1). Machines that shake the tree by clasping the trunk may not be appropriate for all orchard designs; trees on dwarf rootstock, with brittle graft unions, or with extensive trellising may not be compatible with shaking. Allowing apples to naturally drop and then harvesting the crop in one or more passes is also commonplace (Merwin et al., 2008). Many cider-specific cultivars are prone to preharvest fruit drop (Peck et al., 2021). Cider apples are typically harvested at full ripeness (100% starch degradation) to allow for greater soluble solids concentration. Compared with fresh-market apples, which are often hand-harvested at 20% to 50% starch degradation to optimize fruit quality and lengthen storage potential, cider apples typically have a longer timeframe when they can be harvested. Additionally, cider apples are typically harvested in a single pass.

Apples on the orchard floor are windrowed into the alleyways to facilitate their collection. Apple windrowers are typically attached to the side of a tractor or self-propelled harvester and typically consist of a rotating wheel with rubber paddle blades that are used to sweep the apples. The sweeper wheel is sometimes attached to a hydraulic arm that can move around the tree trunks and pull apples into the alleyway. Tractors and self-propelled harvesters are also commonly outfitted with a front-mounted sweeper that moves apples from the alleyway, including those that are in the tire path, into the windrow. On some machines, a rear-mounted fan blows leftover apples into the neighboring alley for collection on the next pass. Fans can also be separate pieces of equipment.

The mechanism most used to collect the windrowed apples from the orchard floor is similar to a potato harvester conveyor system through which two stacked rod conveyor belts wedge the apples from above and below and transfer them into the harvester. Various configurations are available. Fans, slots, and rubber sweeps within the machine clean the apples and remove debris before depositing them into a collection a bin. On smaller machines, apples are placed into totes or bins. On larger machines, apples are loaded into a built-in hydraulic bin, capable of dumping apples into trailers for transport out of the orchard. Some machines may tow and deposit apples into their own trailers, which reduces the amount of stopping and dumping. Once out of the orchard, mechanically harvested apples may sit on a concrete pad for 1 week or more, depending on the weather, before being processed. However, throughout Europe, most mechanically harvested fruit is processed within several days of being harvested.

In the United States, apple growers must comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act, which largely prohibits the sale of apples that have come in contact with the orchard floor due to concerns of contamination with pathogens such as Escherichia coli and Listeria monocytogenes (Ewing and Rasco, 2018). In addition to the bruising that shortens the shelf life of the fruit, these regulations have largely prevented the adoption of mechanical harvesting from the orchard floor for processing apples in the United States. However, farms may apply for an exemption if the produce will be processed with a “kill step,” such as alcoholic fermentation, to eliminate the risk of these pathogens. Due to contact with the orchard floor and the bruising and cutting of apples during mechanical harvesting, mechanically harvested apples cannot be sold for other purposes, such as fresh eating, and cannot be stored for long periods of time before an unacceptable amount of rotting occurs (Alexander et al., 2016). However, bitter cider-specific cultivars are not suitable for purposes other than cider making. The limited storage capability of mechanically harvested apples may not be compatible for some cidery business models that depend on storing fruit for longer periods before processing.

A critical factor in successfully implementing cider apple harvesting equipment is finding machinery appropriate to the orchard scale. Equipment that is too large or that is not being used to its full capacity will not be cost effective. Equipment that is too small may save on labor inputs or costs but does not maximize the return that could be achieved by making an investment in larger equipment. The goal of our study was to compare the economic returns of using mechanical apple harvesting equipment designed for different orchard sizes with the economic returns from hand harvesting. Partial budgets were used to compare mechanical harvesting costs for 5-, 15-, and 60-acre model apple orchards with hand harvesting. We also used sensitivity analyses to determine the effect of 1) different acreages within each of the model’s orchard size and 2) changes in annual compounding labor wages. We hypothesized that, if machinery and orchard scales were properly matched for costs and efficiency, mechanical harvesting would be more profitable than hand harvesting over the anticipated 30-year lifespan of the equipment.

Materials and methods

Mechanical harvesting equipment costs were compared with hand harvesting using partial budget analysis for 5-, 15-, and 60-acre model apple orchards. The partial budgets calculated the cumulative machinery, maintenance, fuel, and labor costs of mechanical harvesting vs. hand harvesting for the 30-year expected lifespan of the machinery.

We used the assumption that harvesting occurred in a mature orchard at full production for all years. Assumptions for tree spacing, yield, and hand-picking rate were taken from Peck and Knickerbocker (2018) (Table 2). In that study, interviews conducted with six cider apple orchard operations in the main apple growing regions of New York were used to estimate the cost of production, yield, and returns; the data were then used to develop enterprise budgets for each of the farms.

Table 2.

Assumptions used in the partial budget to estimate cider apple harvesting costs. The partial budget accounts for the cider apple orchard design, yield, hand harvesting rate, labor wages, and machinery costs and work capacities.

Table 2.

Labor costs were estimated from USDA–NASS reports; hand harvest and cable shaker assistant labor were estimated to cost $17.97/h ($14.85/h + 25% in tax, benefits, and administrative costs), and harvester and shaker operator labor was estimated to be $20.57/h ($17/h + 21% in tax, benefits, and administration costs) (USDA–NASS, 2020).

The machinery modeled in this study is not widely used in North America; thus, we relied on correspondence with the manufacturer and/or their websites for prices and work rates. Shaker and harvester models were chosen based on their availability in North America; the three harvesters modeled for use in this study were chosen to represent small-, medium-, and large-capacity machines suitable for the different-sized orchards. For the 5-acre orchard, we modeled the use of two shaker types: a cable shaker (AMB Rousset, Beaulieu, France), operated by a tractor driver and an assistant placing the cable around the tree, and a hydraulic shaker (SL81E; Tuthill Temperley, Banbury, UK), run by a single operator. The 5-acre orchard modeled the use of a small harvester (OB 70R; Feucht-Obsttechnik, Burgstetten, Germany). The 15-acre orchard used the hydraulic shaker and a medium harvester (Grouse; Pattenden Machinery, Ledbury, UK). The 60-acre orchard used the hydraulic shaker and a large harvester (Falcon, Pattenden Machinery). Assumptions of machinery costs and operating rates are listed in Table 2. Photographs and a description of the machinery used in this study are in Fig. 1.

Hand harvesting picking rates and equipment operating capacities were used to determine the total hours required to harvest 1 acre of orchard (Table 2) by the following equations: HHand = Y/R and HMech = (T/RShaker) + (Y/RHarv), where HHand is the hours required to harvest 1 acre by hand, R is the picking rate of apples by hand labor (42.5-lb bushels/h), Y is the yield of apples (bushels/acre), HMech is the hours required to shake and harvest an orchard mechanically, RShaker is the shaking capacity (trees/hour), T is trees per acre, and RHarv is the harvesting capacity of mechanized harvester (bushels/hour).

The number of hours needed to harvest 1 acre was then multiplied by the acreage of the farm and the cost of the required labor (mechanized operator wage or hand-labor wage) to determine the annual labor harvesting cost using the following equations: ACHand = HHand × PHand and (ACMech = HMech × PMech, where ACHand is the annual labor costs for hand harvesting, PHand is the price of hand harvesting labor per hour, ACMech is the annual labor cost for mechanized harvesting, and PMech is the price of mechanized equipment operator labor per hour.

Fuel consumption was factored into the mechanized harvesting costs using the formula from Grisso et al. (2004) and Grisso (2020): QF = (0.0434X + 0.019) × HPTO, where QF is the diesel fuel consumption at partial load and full throttle (gallons/hour), X is the fraction of equivalent PTO power available, and X = H/HPTO, where H is the equivalent PTO power required by current operation (horsepower), and HPTO is the rated PTO power available (horsepower). Assuming ideal conditions, the ratio of PTO power available was assumed to be 1. Gasoline engines use more fuel than diesel engines. Gasoline consumption was estimated by the following equation from Virginia Tech and the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory (Grisso, 2004): QGas = (0.54X + 0.62 – 0.04√697X) × X × HPTO, where QGas is the gasoline fuel consumption at partial load and full throttle (gallons/hour).

Depreciation was calculated using a straight-line depreciation over the expected life of the machinery (30 years) with $0.00 salvage value.

Accumulated maintenance costs were calculated as a percentage of the purchase price and the used engine hours (Edwards, 2015). Tree shakers are three-point hitch attachments and are not self-propelled; thus, accumulated maintenance costs in the model include those for the shaker as well as a tractor. Tree shakers are relatively specialized equipment, and there are no published maintenance data available to the authors. Thus, maintenance costs for the shakers were estimated based on published maintenance costs for a mower-conditioner that has a similar hydraulic system to a shaker but requires more maintenance due to the universal joints in the PTO shaft as well as the blades (Edwards, 2015). Maintenance on a four-wheel-drive tractor is generally less frequent and is therefore cumulatively less expensive than a two-wheel-drive tractor (Edwards, 2015). Maintenance costs for the tractors and harvesters in the model were calculated by averaging the maintenance costs of two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive tractors.

Harvester costs were calculated by summing the tractor maintenance costs along with specific harvester mechanics (excluding the motor/drive train). Harvester maintenance costs were calculated from potato harvester maintenance data, which are mechanically similar (Edwards, 2015). Cumulative maintenance cost data for the shaker and harvester ended at 2000 h at 64% and 50% of the original purchase prices, respectively. From there, we assumed 25% additional maintenance cost to be included every 500 h for each piece of equipment surpassing the 2000-h mark.

Sensitivity analyses were used to calculate the effect of different orchard sizes ranging from half to double the planted area of the originally modeled orchard. Sensitivity analyses were also used to forecast potential changes in the labor market using compounding wage changes from −2% to 5%.

Results and discussion

Our analyses found that mechanical harvesting cider apples could be profitable for all orchard scales as long as the appropriate machinery was used. For the 5-acre orchard we found that, despite their lower purchase price, the use of the cable shaker was less economically viable than hand harvesting and, for that matter, using the hydraulic shaker (Table 1, Fig. 2). For the 5-acre orchard, the combination of the cable shaker with the small harvester cost more than hand harvesting over a 30-year period. At year 30, the costs associated with mechanical harvesting were $51,053 more than the $143,290 associated with hand harvesting (Supplemental Table S1). Increasing the orchard size or increasing annual compounding wage rates by 5% still found that purchasing and using the cable shaker and small harvester was less profitable than hand harvesting (Supplemental Tables S2 and S3). The cable shaker was found to have a slow work rate requiring 15.1 h, and two workers, to shake the 907 trees/acre we used in our model. In a lowerdensity orchard with fewer trees per acre, the use of the cable shaker may be more economical. Alternatively, a small orchard could experiment with forgoing shaking and making multiple passes to collect apples as they drop.

Conversely, the hydraulic shaker could shake the 907 trees/acre in 2.5 h (Table 1). Although hydraulic shakers are about 10 times more expensive than cable shakers ($17,000 vs. $1770), the faster work pace of the hydraulic shaker paired with the small harvester made the adoption of mechanized equipment much faster and more profitable than hand harvesting for the 5-acre orchard (Fig. 2). We found that 1 acre could be shaken and harvested in 8.7 h using this equipment, whereas hand harvesting would take 53.7 h. In the 5-acre orchard model, the cost of the hydraulic shaker and small harvester broke even at year 16 (Supplemental Table S4). Whereas picking apples by hand cost $956/acre, over the life of the machinery, mechanical harvesting on the 5-acre farm model cost $734/acre. The initial investment for this machinery was $36,814. By year 30, cumulative costs associated with mechanical harvesting were 23% ($33,253) lower than those associated with hand harvesting. Using the hydraulic shaker and small harvester on a 50% larger farm (7.5 acres) broke even with hand harvesting at year 9 and on a 100% larger farm (10 acres) at year 6 (Fig. 3, Supplemental Table S5). Using this machinery on 10 acres cumulatively cost 49% ($140,135) less than hand harvesting by year 30. However, the combination of a small harvester and hydraulic shaker was not more profitable than hand harvesting on a 50% smaller (2.5 acres) farm, cumulatively costing 28% ($20,187) more than hand harvesting. For the 15-acre orchard, a 2% compounding wage increase resulted in mechanical harvesting breaking even at year 13 and by year 30 had 38% lower cumulative harvesting costs in comparison with hand harvesting (Fig. 4, Supplemental Table S6).

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Cumulative harvest cost over 30 years for hand harvesting and mechanically harvesting cider apple orchards with different sizes and harvesting machinery equipment. The 5-, 15-, and 60-acre orchards were modeled to be mechanically harvested by a hydraulic shaker and the small, medium, and large harvester, respectively. The % Orchard size lines project harvest costs for using hand harvesting labor or the machinery modeled in each scenario on different percentages of the original farm size; 1 acre = 0.4047 ha.

Citation: HortTechnology 32, 4; 10.21273/HORTTECH04988-21

Fig. 4.
Fig. 4.

Cumulative savings over 30 years when mechanical harvesting is used instead of hand harvesting under −2%, 0%, 2%, and 5% compounding annual wage changes for 5-, 15-, and 60-acre model cider apple orchards; 1 acre = 0.4047 ha.

Citation: HortTechnology 32, 4; 10.21273/HORTTECH04988-21

For the 15-acre orchard, harvest savings in comparison with hand harvesting were even larger than in the 5-acre scenario (Fig. 3). Cumulative savings as a ratio of harvesting expenditures over 30 years were 128% greater in the 15-acre vs. the 5-acre orchard scenario. The combination of the hydraulic shaker and medium harvester broke even with hand harvesting in year 7 and by year 30 resulted in 52% ($224,123) lower cumulative harvesting costs (Supplemental Table S7). The initial investment in this machinery was $61,500. Over a 30-year period, mechanical harvesting cost an average of $457/acre. This is based on one operator shaking and mechanically harvesting 1 acre of trees in 5.6 h. Using this combination of machinery on an orchard twice the size (30 acres) cost an average of $340/acre to harvest (Fig. 5, Supplemental Table S8). Using the medium-scale machine for a 30-acre orchard scenario, mechanical harvesting broke even with hand harvesting in year 3 and by year 30 cumulatively resulted in 66% ($571,247) lower harvesting costs in comparison with hand labor. For the 15-acre orchard, an annual compounding 2% increase in labor prices resulted in mechanical harvesting breaking even in year 6 and cumulatively reduced harvesting costs by 61% ($356,589) in comparison with hand labor by year 30 (Fig. 4, Supplemental Table S9).

Fig. 5.
Fig. 5.

Average cost per acre of mechanically harvesting cider apples with various machinery combinations and orchard sizes over the 30-year expected life of the machinery. The dashed line represents the cost of hand harvesting 1 acre of apples; 1 acre = 0.4047 ha, $1/acre = $2.4711/ha.

Citation: HortTechnology 32, 4; 10.21273/HORTTECH04988-21

The 60-acre orchard scenario netted the greatest returns from using mechanized instead of hand harvesting even though there was an initial investment of $184,000 for the large harvester and hydraulic shaker (Table 1). The average harvesting cost for the 60-acre orchard with the large harvester was $452/acre, which was similar to the $457/acre for the 15-acre orchard with the medium harvester (Fig. 5). Using the large harvester for the 60-acre orchard broke even with hand harvesting in year 5 (Fig. 3, Supplemental Table S10). The large harvester was also the fastest harvester in our study, only taking 1.7 h to harvest 1 acre of apple trees. By year 10, the adoption of mechanical harvesting equipment saved 37% ($210,568) and by year 30 saved 53% ($905,289) in harvesting costs in comparison with hand harvesting. Using this machinery on a 50% larger farm (90 acres) broke even in year 3 and cumulatively saved 51% ($438,518) in harvesting costs in year 10 and 60% ($1,541,933) in year 30 (Fig. 3, Supplemental Table S11). With a 2% annual compounding increase in labor wages for the 60-acre model, mechanical harvesting cost 63% ($1,454,011) less than hand harvesting at year 30 (Fig. 4, Supplemental Table S12). Even with a 2% annual compounding decrease in labor wages the machinery broke even in year 5, costing 41% ($527,592) less than hand harvesting by year 30.

Our study indicates that mechanical harvesting is economically advantageous compared with hand harvesting across a wide range of orchard sizes and machinery options. Larger orchards had a faster recovery of capital expenditure on machinery and greater overall savings in comparison with hand harvesting, but even 5-acre orchards showed that it would be profitable to replace harvest labor with mechanical harvesting. Over the expected lifetime of the machinery, harvesting costs were reduced by more than half in our 15- and 60-acre orchard models when compared with hand harvesting at current wages. Using the harvesters from 15- and 60-acre farm models in orchards twice the size as originally modeled decreased average harvest costs to 64% and 65% of hand harvesting costs, respectively. With current trends of increasing labor wages, the returns for mechanical harvesting are likely to be even greater, as projected in the sensitivity analysis (Fig. 4).

For each cider apple orchard scale we identified several harvester manufacturers and models (Table 1). Thus, growers can comparison shop and match equipment to their orchard design. As previously mentioned, although mechanical harvesting is not widely practiced in North America, the equipment can be purchased from overseas. Apple growers interested in incorporating mechanical harvesting equipment will have to tailor machinery purchases to fit the needs of their existent orchards, but they should also consider the needs of machinery spacing and tree size when planting new orchards. Operations that grow a mix of cider and fresh-market apples could also integrate harvesters into fresh-market blocks to collect fruit drops more affordably for processing. Of course, cider apple growers should consult current food safety regulations when using ground-harvested fruit (Ewing and Rasco, 2018). Additionally, due to the shorter shelf life of mechanically harvested apples in comparison with hand-picked apples, cider operations may need to increase their cidery processing capacity to avoid losses during storage (Alexander et al., 2019).

Other research papers have investigated the legal ramifications of harvesting cider apples from the orchard floor (Ewing and Rasco, 2018), the efficacy of using modified over the row small fruit harvesters to harvest cider apples (Alexander et al., 2016), developing robotic harvesters for picking fresh-market apples (Silwal et al., 2017), and the differences in fruit and juice quality from mechanically harvested vs. hand-harvested cider apples (Alexander et al., 2019). Our study is, to our knowledge, the first to model the economic implications of using existent commercial cider apple harvest technology in comparison with hand-harvest labor costs in the United States. However, because cider apple harvest equipment is not widely used in the United States, our study relied on manufacturer specifications for data such as work rate (i.e., trees or tons of fruit harvested per hour or acre). Thus, future work comparing the work capacity, efficiency, and fruit quality of mechanically vs. hand harvesting apples using a range of machinery and orchard designs is needed to provide empirical evidence for the cost savings of using mechanical harvesters in cider apple orchards.

The economic model developed for this study is available for free as a customizable spreadsheet (Cornell University, 2022) in Microsoft Excel (Microsoft Corp., Seattle, WA). Within the spreadsheet users can enter data about their own tree spacing, fruit yields, wage rates, and machinery costs to compare mechanical and hand harvesting for their own orchard.

Conclusions

A wide variety of European cider apple harvesting equipment can make harvesting cider apples in the United States less expensive than hand harvesting over a wide range of orchard sizes. Additionally, mechanical harvesting provides many benefits to cider apple growers that are not easily forecasted or quantified. For example, the greater speed and reduced labor requirements would allow growers to complete harvests in shorter timeframes and conduct harvests according to fruit ripeness and weather conditions, not the availability of hand harvesting labor. Additionally, mechanical harvesting buffers cider apple growers from the effects of labor shortages and wage increases. However, growers must ensure their orchards and harvesting machinery are compatible and that the cider producers they supply have the infrastructure to process bruised and cut fruit in a short timeframe. In this study, we assumed that machinery was purchased outright and new by an owner-operated orchard. Financing the purchase of machinery, purchasing used machinery, or collectively purchasing and sharing use of harvesting equipment among a cooperative of growers are all options that would change the financial projections. As the North American cider industry expands, mechanical harvesting offers an opportunity for apple growers to more efficiently and cost effectively harvest their crops while alleviating some of the strain of an uncertain labor market.

Units

TU1

Literature cited

Contributor Notes

This research was supported by the New York Farm Viability Institute, the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Multistate grant accession no. 1021095), the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, and the Angry Orchard Cider Company, LLC. Trent Davis and David Zakalik provided critical feedback on the partial budget model and this article.

G.P. is the corresponding author. E-mail: gmp32@cornell.edu.

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    (A) A cable shaker produced by AMB Rousset (Beaulieu, France) was modeled for use in the 5-acre orchard. Although the purchase cost is less than hydraulic shakers, an operator needs to physically attach and then detach the cable from the tree trunk, reducing the operating capacity of this machine. (B) The SL81e hydraulic shaker manufactured by Tuthill Temperley (Banbury, UK) was used for all orchard models. A mechanically operated arm that clamps onto the tree trunk and hydraulic pumps to shake the tree. (C) The 70R manufactured by Feucht-Obsttechnik (Burgstetten, Germany) was selected as the small harvester modeled for use in the 5-acre orchard. It is a 13-horsepower (9.7 kJ·s−1), self-propelled harvester with a 48-gal (181.7 L) high-dumping bin. (D) The Grouse manufactured by Pattenden Machinery (Ledbury, UK) was modeled as the medium harvester used in the 15-acre orchard. It is a three-wheeled harvester that is small and maneuverable enough to operate on hilly terrain and with orchards with narrower row spacing. It is outfitted with windrowing sweepers and a 0.5-ton hopper with a hydraulic lifting arm. (E) The Falcon, manufactured by Pattenden Machinery, is a high-capacity, self-propelled apple harvester selected as the large harvester for use in the 60-acre orchard. It can harvest more than 100 tons of apples per day from the ground and has a 2.2-ton hydraulic high-dump bucket; 1 acre = 0.4047 ha, 1 ton = 0.9072 t.

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    Cumulative harvest cost over 30 years for a 5-acre (2.0 ha) model cider apple orchard using hand labor (Hand), a cable shaker and small mechanical harvester (Cable), or a hydraulic shaker and small mechanical harvester (Hydraulic).

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    Cumulative harvest cost over 30 years for hand harvesting and mechanically harvesting cider apple orchards with different sizes and harvesting machinery equipment. The 5-, 15-, and 60-acre orchards were modeled to be mechanically harvested by a hydraulic shaker and the small, medium, and large harvester, respectively. The % Orchard size lines project harvest costs for using hand harvesting labor or the machinery modeled in each scenario on different percentages of the original farm size; 1 acre = 0.4047 ha.

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    Cumulative savings over 30 years when mechanical harvesting is used instead of hand harvesting under −2%, 0%, 2%, and 5% compounding annual wage changes for 5-, 15-, and 60-acre model cider apple orchards; 1 acre = 0.4047 ha.

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    Average cost per acre of mechanically harvesting cider apples with various machinery combinations and orchard sizes over the 30-year expected life of the machinery. The dashed line represents the cost of hand harvesting 1 acre of apples; 1 acre = 0.4047 ha, $1/acre = $2.4711/ha.

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