From hands and machines to our plates

Harvesting then, now and in the future

When starting our journey of developing a harvesting robot for strawberries, we noticed the lack of knowledge looking at how different fruit and vegetables are harvested. Especially when it comes to berries, many consumers assumed a much higher level of automation in the overall process than we actually see in the industry. Thus, in the harvesting month of October, we want to take a look at how different plants are harvested before they end up on our plates.

Berries - small fruits, lots of work?

Going out to the field in summer and picking berries yourself is a highlight every now and then, but the majority of berries are not harvested by consumers themselves. However, there are usually no machines for this. Especially soft fruit such as raspberries or strawberries are still harvested by hand. Often, seasonal workers from abroad are hired for the respective harvesting period. They are also needed for plant care, which is done manually as well. For farmers, the annual search for workers to take on these tasks is one of the most difficult - Covid and the war in Ukraine in particular, have made the situation even more challenging.

Strawberries are delicate fruit and therefore carefully picked by hand in most environments.

New takes on agriculture such as vertical farming and different methods of indoor farming aim art solving these problems by offering an automated cultivation of fruit and vegetables. This also includes the automated harvest. In many discussions, strawberries are said to be the next fully automated plant in these structures, for example in hydroponic or aeroponic surroundings. To enable and further this development Organifarms has developed BERRY, an automated harvesting robot for strawberries.

Interested in seeing strawberries being harvested automatically? See our latest video here.

Tomatoes - automation for some, hands for others

Tomatoes are a popular vegetable that we can not only find unprocessed but also in many ready-to-eat products like sauce, spread or paste. The harvest of tomatoes varies depending on their future use: Tomato plants for the production of fruit for direct consumption mostly grow in greenhouses, where the fruit is harvested manually. The demand for automation solutions is growing here for the same reasons as we see in strawberries: Finding sufficient personnel is hard. Additionally, there have been many reports on incidents in which harvesting workers were treated poorly and worked in inhumane conditions resembling modern slavery [1]. Thus, nowadays using harvesting machines is a seal of quality in some countries.

This is not always possible with the existing machines, as most of them resemble large tractors that drive through the fields. Only varieties that have a tough skin weather this treatment - and these varieties are not suited for the direct market. We find the products of this automated harvest in processed food. Looking at these facts, the industry is also searching for solutions for the automated harvest of tomatoes that is rather gentle and can also be done with table tomatoes.

An example of a harvesting machine on the field can be seen in this video by Mutti Parma.

Apple orchards - where hands do the work

The current processes of apple harvesting resemble those in the tomato industry. Automation like machines that shake the apple trees exist – but they can only be used for fruit that is supposed to be processed after being collected. Looking at the ratio of dessert apples to those that are further processed, it becomes clear how much is harvested by hand: Over 70% are harvested for direct sale and thus by hand. Only 28% are subsequently processed and can thus be harvested with the help of tree shakers and collection equipment (in Germany, 2021 [2]).

For larger orchards in which the fruit is intended for direct selling, there are innovations like platforms, on which people can stand and harvest while being driven through the rows. These are not seen in many farms so far.

Example of a harvesting platform for apples. [3]

"The hurdle here is, on the one hand, the high acquisition costs," explains Michael Neumüller of the Bavarian Fruit Center, "On the other hand, farmers then also need trained personnel for the use of these new

technologies, which is at least as difficult to obtain as the harvest workers they currently need”.

There are also approaches to automating the harvesting of individual apples - but these have not yet reached the market. One approach to this, for example, is the company Tevel from Israel, which uses drones - see this video for an insight.

Potatoes - from hands to machines

Fields of potatoes or beets are now farmed differently in almost all steps, than they were a few decades ago: They can usually be harvested with a full harvester. These large machines can collect up to six rows at a time and - depending on age and model - also integrate the first cleaning step of the vegetables. Up to 15 tons of potatoes can be stored on board of these full harvesters. Through their integration into the process, the harvest of potatoes and beets needs a lot less personnel than other crops. By this, in Germany alone there are 11 million tons harvested per year [4].

Example of a full harvester for potatoes in the field. [5]

All in all, harvesting differentiates a lot from what we saw on acres a few decades ago. However, to make agriculture more sustainable - ecologically and socially - more steps will have to be taken. We can see approaches to improve working conditions and planability as well as fruit quality from all over the world - with drones, robots, tractors and AI. We are happy to be part of this revolution!

[1] Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/20/tomatoes-italy-mafia-migrant-labour-modern-slavery , https://theecologist.org/2011/sep/01/scandal-tomato-slaves-harvesting-crop-exported-uk

[2] Source: https://www.fruchtportal.de/news/artikel/047629/apfelernte-in-deutschland-39-der-pfel-stammten-2020-aus-baden-wrttemberg

[3] Source: https://www.munckhof.org/en/machine/pluk-o-trak-senior/

[4] Source: https://www.bmel-statistik.de/landwirtschaft/ernte-und-qualitaet/kartoffelernte/

[5] Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kartoffelroder