Manufacturers shake up almond harvesting to help control dust

Issue Date: September 1, 2004
Eric McMullin

Things are shaking in the state's almond orchards.

With growers required to reduce PM-10 dust emissions, manufacturers are redesigning existing harvest equipment while others are trying to introduce catch-frame technology Already, Weis-McNair and Flory have lengthened the dirt chain on their pick-up machines so that less dirt goes into the machine; less dirt going in means less dust being blown out. And Exact-Corp. is field-testing a harvesting system that features, among other things, a regenerative air system that keeps air‎and therefore, dust‎inside both the pick-up machine and the conditioner.

But the big news in almond harvesting are the attempts to bring catch-frame technology into the orchards. That technology is used widely in other tree crops and various manufacturers/entrepreneurs have tried over the years to adapt it to almonds, with no success.

However, with the new dust-control requirements, at least two manufacturers in the state think that's going to change‎and at least one grower agrees with them.

"We took delivery on one Schieler Harvester this year and we expect to order another one this fall," reports Fred Olmstead, general manager of Air-Way Farms in Fresno. "We've had the machine out in the field since late July and it's doing everything we hoped it would."

The Schieler Harvester uses an umbrella catch-frame assembly to catch almonds as they fall from the tree, explains Larry Schieler, manufacturer of the machine. "The nuts go into a hopper, where they're unloaded into a uniform windrow in the middles of the orchard."

After the nuts are dried down, Air-Way Farms uses a modified Weis-McNair V-Sweeper to sweep‎in one pass‎the nuts into a 40-inch windrow in preparation for the pick-up machine.

The width of the windrow is adjustable and nuts are laid 2-3 inches deep. They dry uniformly and as quickly as nuts lying on the orchard floor because they get more sun than those nuts, says Schieler. The machine sells for around $200,000 and features four-wheel-drive, an air-conditioned cab and individual motors on each wheel.

"One of the things we like," says Olmstead, "is the air-conditioned cab. Otherwise, workers are exposed to the dust. With the Schieler Harvester, our driver is able to work longer and with less stress."

John Gebhardt, president of Environmental Harvesting Concepts in Wasco, is developing a system that features side-by-side catch-frame technology, but Olmstead says he prefers the umbrella system "because there's just one driver and one engine, which reduces the cost of operation significantly. Also, with the Schieler Harvester, your driver is looking directly at the tree and can see if it's shaken or not. With a side-by-side system, your two drivers are looking at two sides of the tree."

The primary reason for buying the Schieler Harvester is the environment, says Olmstead.

"We need to show that we're doing something about PM-10 emissions," he explains. "With the Schieler Harvester, we're eliminating two passes with sweepers, and the two biggest creators of dust are sweeping and the pick-up machine. We have not been in the harvesting business before because we had our nuts custom harvested. But now we're getting into it and want to do it right. I think this is the future of almond harvesting."

Gebhardt is in the third year of field-testing his machine, which he says will sell for "$115,000 to $125,000 for the two machines together." He did 75 acres last season and hoped to double that this year. He agrees that catch-frame technology is the future and is confident that some growers will prefer his side-by-side version.

"The technology isn't new," he explains. "It's already the primary way plums, pistachios and cherries are harvested. In almonds, it'll be an individual grower's preference."

Meanwhile, Exact Corp. expects to have its harvesting system selling for the 2005 season, reports Tony Ringeisen, sales manager for Progressive Ag in Modesto.

"It's a three-machine system," explains Ringeisen. "First, we have a brush-and-blow sweeper that has an extended brush to sweep up nuts so our blower doesn't use as much cfm (cubic feet per minute) of air to move the other nuts. We're only moving nuts 2 feet versus 6 feet, so that in itself creates less dust.

"Then comes a conditioner that features a V-sweep upfront on a tractor," Ringeisen says. "A producer can shake, sweep and condition all in the same day. The V-sweep puts the nuts in a windrow in the middles, where they can dry uniformly in the sun. We've found that we can cut the drying time in half, from five or six days to three. The processors get a more uniform product and the growers save on drying time.

"Last is the pick-up machine," says Ringeisen. "This features a regenerative air system which minimizes dust emissions; the conditioner has the same system. The sweeper is self-propelled, the conditioner and pick-up machine are both pto-driven, tractor-pulled. The pick-up machine has cleaning chains all the way back through the regenerative air system."

Ringeisen says that a price hasn't been determined, other than noting that "it will be price-competitive" with other harvesting systems available. The system will be sold through Progressive Ag and Exact Corp., with potential for individual dealers added as time goes on.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.