Tree Grader Wows Int’l Tree Fruit Group

7/27/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

ASPERS, Pa. — Fruit growers from around the world gather around a machine in a mostly empty warehouse in the heart of Adams County’s horticulture industry. In November, the 5,000-square-foot building will be filled with trees, its heated floors preserving the plants.

For now, the year-old space is filled with members of the International Fruit Tree Association, who are taking the group’s first study tour in the area since the 1980s.

The group is watching Adams County Nursery’s automatic tree grader, which uses two cameras to separate the trees with stouter trunks and many branches from the spindlier, sparser young Honeycrisp apple trees.

The trees are loaded on a conveyor belt with hooks for individual trees. After the cameras determine their grade, the trees are carried uphill and away for 20 yards or so. The conveyor rolls to the underside of its assembly and drops the trees about seven feet to the wooden platform corresponding to the appropriate grade.

John Baugher Jr., a fourth-generation member of the family that owns the farm, which now has fifth-generation members working there, says the machine can sort about 60 trees per minute. His goal is 70.

The first year of using the fairly rare machine did not go so well, he says, when springs that were supposed to last two years lasted just two weeks.

In the three years since then, some improvements have been made to the machine and the family is learning to make it more efficient.

Each of the nursery’s tree varieties has an entry on the machine’s computer interface that tells the computer what traits to look for.

Top-grade apple trees will have a minimum half-inch caliper reading and a minimum of four branches. For cherry trees, the machine just measures the stem diameter.

The computer also tabulates the number of trees it processes. The machine can sort 18,000 trees a day. It graded 775,000 trees in 42 days last year.

Baugher would like to see the machine sort 20,000-25,000 trees per day, but the machine is not quite ready for that volume. He would like to extend the loading area, for example.

The nursery, founded in 1905, raises 800 varieties. Most of the trees are grown in Sussex County, Del., though the pears are still raised in Adams County.

Baugher says the family bought the machine from Fischell Machinery in Michigan. He believes Fischell has maybe one other such tree grader in use in the United States, in California.

The unusualness of his family’s centerpiece machine does not surprise him. There is “not a big market” for graders in the U.S. because few operations are the size of Adams County Nursery, he says.

Moving the machine for the construction of the new warehouse was not as hard as it might seem, Baugher says. It separated into three main sections, though some of the sensitive computer wiring had to be disconnected for the move.

Jianghong Zhang, a Penn State Extension visiting scholar from China, called the grader “amazing.”

In China, as in most operations in the United States, tree grading is done by hand. The cost of the machinery would be much greater than the cost of labor in China, while the situation in America, at least at Adams County Nursery, is reversed, she said.

Mario Miranda Sazo, a Cornell University Extension associate from New York, said the grader saves a lot of time, reducing to one machine a task that otherwise often requires 20-25 people.

Hollabaugh Brothers

Earlier in the day, the group visited two orchards in Biglerville, Hollabaugh Brothers and McCleaf’s Orchard.

Like the Baughers, the Hollabaughs opened a new building last year, although the Hollabaughs’ building is not a warehouse but a spacious farm market.

The family, who founded the business in 1955 and incorporated with a board of directors in 1982, owns 503 contiguous acres.

Since building the new retail store, they have diversified the store’s offerings, stocking local meats and making baked goods on site in a bakery that has a window to let customers watch the preparation.

The bakery has been the company’s biggest growth area, said Ellie Hollabaugh, assistant business and market manager.

The company also has two 20,000-square-foot cold storage units and a strong wholesale business.

The family gives educational farm tours, mostly to school students. Kay Hollabaugh, the retail market manager, said she sees parents bring their kids back later to shop. Occasionally, she even meets parents who say they went on Hollabaugh orchard tours when they were children.

The family worked with a historian to restore the historic Yellow Hill Cemetery on their property for touring.

Classes about farm-related activities, such as cooking, canning and jam making, have also proved popular, Ellie Hollabaugh said.

Kay Hollabaugh said that until recently the family was selling out of the original, outgrown farm stand across the road, a labyrinthine “puzzle” after being expanded six times.

Kay Hollabaugh said the family decided to build the new store when the third generation committed to continuing the family business.

One of the members of that third generation is Bruce Hollabaugh, the production and personnel manager, who led the tour of the orchard.

The orchard was one of the first in the area to try an all-pedestrian picking system. It has caused the workers headaches fighting the trees’ inclinations to increase their height, “but it got us away from ladders,” he said.

His new rows are all 4-foot-by-14-foot high density plantings. Bruce Hollabaugh said 3-by-12 or 3-by-13 arrangements are probably best for his operation, but he cannot put his trees much closer together than 4-by-14 because of soil conditions.

Although not quite maximizing space in the orchard, “we’re getting the wood we want,” he said.

Miranda Sazo, the Cornell Extension associate, lauded the Hollabaughs for “taking the lead” in the Adams County region with high-density plantings.

This growing technique uses resources efficiently and improves fruit quality, he said.

The Hollabaughs’ team spot-picks almost everything using a system the family developed decades ago. The family continues to use 10-bushel bins even though most of the industry has moved to 20- or 25-bushel formats.

Although using smaller containers prevents the adoption of bin trailers, Bruce Hollabaugh said forklifts work fine with the 10-bushel bins.

He also showed off the family’s weather station, which is connected to Cornell’s online modeling software through the RainWise program. It can track diseases such as apple scab and fire blight, and has models for insects and carbohydrates.

It measures solar radiation, which can affect thinning spray rates. It can also predict transpiration, the amount of water lost through plant leaves.

And of course, it helps Bruce plan farm tasks around incoming weather.

The Hollabaughs’ acre of asparagus has been a “cash cow,” Bruce Hollabaugh said. The relatively low-maintenance crop only needs herbicides in the spring, and then the shoots are cut until there are no more.

This year has been dry, so the Hollabaughs used drip irrigation on the asparagus, which is a thirsty plant, Bruce Hollabaugh said.

As he led the tour to the new high-density plantings, the group passed through a small valley where the family keeps its blueberry planting, which is completely covered with netting like a massive batting cage.

Bruce Hollabaugh said installing the netting was “not at all fun to do” but “without question, it saved our blueberries” from the birds.

The yield jumped from 200 pints to 10,000 pints on less than one acre after the net was built. The covering paid for itself in two years, he said.

The visitors were intrigued by the Hollabaughs’ 2013 hydraulic work platform, made by Phil Brown Welding of Conklin, Mich.

The tilting platform lets the workers on both sides do what they want, though it does not have auto-tilt. The workers have so far used it for training, thinning and placing pheromone ties but not harvesting.

Bruce Hollabaugh said the platform rises a little higher than what he needs for his orchard, but even at its highest setting the machine still has a “very sturdy feeling.”

The machine has a 15-foot center and is about as wide as possible for the size of the orchard. Its maximum speed is about 6 mph.

While his workers are wild about the new machine, Bruce Hollabaugh said he would have liked a model with autosteer.

He said the platform was the first of its kind that Phil Brown made for use in Pennsylvania, so the manufacturer, which usually makes products for flatter terrain, upgraded the brakes to handle the hills.

Bruce Hollabaugh said the machine was an experiment to see if such technology could be profitable for his operation.

The family paid just under $43,000 for the platform, which was two-thirds the cost of other platforms with split sides, he said.

The company has been using the machine for less than a year, but it has about doubled his workers’ efficiency on the tasks they have used it for, he said.

The machine is fuel-efficient, consuming 12 gallons of fuel during a 10-hour day, he said.

After viewing the platform, the group headed down a hill, across a country road and into McCleaf’s Orchard.

Owner Corey McCleaf is well-known for growing cherries in high tunnels. The group sheltered from the high-90s temperatures as McCleaf discussed his growing strategies. Nathan Millburn of Millburn Orchards in Elkton, Md., and Justin Weaver of Weaver’s Orchard in Morgantown, Pa., gave a cherry pruning demonstration.

An International Tour

The International Fruit Tree Association tour ran July 15-18 and included visits to a dozen local operations. The group sold out all 216 tour slots and required four coach buses.

Miranda Sazo, the Cornell educator, said that these trips are especially beneficial for the younger generation of growers, who are particularly receptive to innovative growing techniques.

Catherine Lara, specialty crops innovations program manager at Penn State’s Adams County Extension, said she and other Extension staff started choosing hotels and blocking out rooms for the study tour last summer.

She said she made sure to prepare early because the participants would be competing for rooms with tourists celebrating the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.

Carla Snyder, agricultural entrepreneurship and marketing educator with Extension, said Adams County made a good choice for the study tour because, on top of being the hub of fruit growing in the commonwealth, the region is noted for its innovative orchard technologies.

Many association members come from the U.S. and Canada, but the organization lives up to its international name, Lara said. Previous meetings have been in Chile, Germany, Italy and other countries.

The organization’s website shows a seven-year plan for conferences and study tours across the United States and Canada, along with international tours projected for France, Israel, Italy, Spain and Turkey later this decade.

The group’s next major event will be its 2014 winter conference in British Columbia.


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