(Sept. 18, 11:33 a.m.) SALINAS, Calif. — In a move to decrease labor costs and increase efficiencies, mechanization has come to the strawberry fields in Salinas, Calif.

For the past couple of years, a grower and an equipment manufacturer have tweaked two huge harvesting aids, reportedly increasing production by as much as 30%.

They do so by reducing the time it takes pickers to run their boxes of berries back to the edge of the field and then return with an empty box to begin all over again.

Third-generation grower Chris Garnett, vice president of sales and marketing and partner in Ramsay Highlander, Gonzales, Calif., knows what it takes to grow and harvest strawberries and other crops in Salinas Valley.

“My family started farming here in the mid-Fifties, growing strawberries,” he said. “My uncle owned a lettuce company, so I got a lot of training in that industry. Out of college, I went to work for him at Royal Packing, which was sold to Dole in early ’90s.”

Ramsay Highlander has built customized harvesting aids and harvesters for just about every crop grown in the valley and far beyond for nearly 40 years but never one like the self-propelled behemoth that straddles 21 beds at a time on one of the ranches of John Larse, president of Sweet Darling Sales Inc., Watsonville.

Prices vary greatly

Somewhat like choosing a new car, the strawberry harvesting aid can range anywhere from $30,000 to several hundred thousand dollars, depending on the options.

The two machines that Larse owns are the Humvees of harvesting, totally self-propelled with giant wheels that can rotate 180 degrees and are on sliding axels that enable them to fit between just about any bed width. Each also has high-low capabilities that can raise the machine above the crops, a forklift adaptation and road dolly to transport the entire thing.

Garnett said the machines benefit both grower and worker. While it takes fewer workers to harvest the same amount of berries as it follows them across the field, they can pick faster, increasing their take-home pay.

“The pickers will get a 30% bigger paycheck and the owner is getting a 30% reduction in people,” he said. “According to the foreman who runs this machine, they have hand crews the same size as the machine crews, and when crew on the harvesting aid gets 500 boxes the crew without the machine only achieves about 300 boxes.”

Already common for lettuce

Garnett said Larse also has several smaller harvesting aids for leafy greens that have reduced his labor force by 40 or 50 people. Garnett said, with the increase in volume and decrease in labor, the break-even point for return on investment, even for the larger machines, could come in as few as 13 months.

He said a self-propelled spinach harvester has replaced 100 people, can harvest 15,000 pounds of spinach an hour and has reduced harvest cost from 28 cents a pound to less than 1 cent a pound.

Mechanical harvesting is common in the lettuce and spinach fields, but Garnett said he was surprised no one in the area had built one for strawberries. There are similar machines in Oxnard, but he said larger Salinas companies have been leery about bringing them into the valley, mainly because of labor contractors.

“I’ve talked to owners of companies and they were a little gun-shy,” he said. “They didn’t want to upset the apple cart with having their labor thinking they were being replaced with machines.”

He said more mechanization would be coming to the valley, not only to save labor costs, but also because the existing labor force is aging and is not being replaced in sufficient numbers.

“You’re a senior citizen by the time you’re 25 out there in the fields,” he said. “We’re talking to mostly bigger (processors) players, but it’s mostly growers (who buy) because they’re making the payrolls, and it’s their discretionary call. But as labor gets tighter, some say they’d like to be ahead of the curve.”

Better cutting technology

Labor will continue to be the driving force for mechanical harvesters, which will continue to be modified to increase production.

“We’ve been building mechanical spinach, baby leaf and spring mix harvesters, where we use the band saw to cut the product,” Garnett said. “We’ve got a machine that will do 13,000-14,000 pounds per hour. To do that by hand would take more than 100 people.”

Waterjet cutting technology is moving from the packing sheds to the fields, which could replace knives, a food safety concern, in harvesting iceberg, romaine and other crops.

Self-propelled celery harvesters may be coming to Salinas soon.

“We have customers who want to mechanically cut celery and then use it for soup and salad companies,” he said. “They want it cut to a certain size so they can be mixed in bagged salads.”

In Garnett’s truck, he has a set of blueprints for a broccoli floret harvester he’s been showing around.

“It’s just a matter of someone saying they want it,” he said.

Already in the works

Mann Packing Co., Salinas, Calif., is already on the road to having its own broccoli floret harvesting machine, which has been in the works for more than a year. The company anticipates it could save as much as 25% in labor costs.

In June, Michigan asparagus growers said they were exploring mechanical harvesting. John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, DeWitt, said the industry is eagerly watching for developments.

Mechanization comes to Salinas strawberry fields
This strawberry harvesting aid from Ramsay Highlander, Gonzales, Calif., helps pickers reduce harvest time by as much as 30%, says company co-owner and vice president of sales and marketing Chris Garnett. The machine, which has conveyor belts that can stretch across 21 strawberry beds, has been modified to include a forklift and storage space for boxes.