Date: Feb 19, 2013

Harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables mechanically has always been a goal of forward-thinking agriculturalists.  And today we are closer to fulfilling that goal than ever before.

There has been much success over the past 50 years on the fresh side of the ledger since the development of the mechanical tomato harvester mechanized the processing side of the tomato and kept the industry alive in the face of a huge labor crisis.  Since then some crops have been almost totally mechanized, such as fresh cut spinach, and many other crops use harvesting aids that have reduced the use of labor or greatly increased the efficiency of labor that is used.

Still the idea of mechanically harvesting a head of lettuce, robotically wrapping it and packing it in a carton still appears to be an unachievable dream.  Or is it?

“We are not that far off,” said Frank Maconachy, owner of Ramsay Highlander Inc., Gonzales, Calif.

Maconachy was not willing to hazard a guess as to how far down the road the complete mechanization of lettuce will be realized but he said that various technologies are out there and are either currently in use or being tested.  An engineer by trade, his science sense takes over when he declines to put a timetable on the effort.  He said each phase and each separate part of the process needs refinement and testing and tweaking.  And the process also needs an industry champion — a company that helps cover the cost of testing and producing the equipment.

Maconachy, who is a Western Growers board member, updated the WG Board at its annual meeting through a presentation to the Food Safety, Science & Technology Committee.  He spoke of three emerging technologies focused on reducing the cost and reliance on agricultural labor and gaining production and harvest efficiencies in the field.  His own firm is doing work in these areas, but in an interview with WG&S after the meeting, Maconachy said other companies are also making progress.  He believes Ramsay Highlander is ahead of the curve but has no problem with produce companies checking out the competition that is out there.

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