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Optimising the harvesting and handling of fruits in the orchard

The information provided in this section should be read in conjunction with other important sources of information namely two DVDs produced by HDC entitled ‘Harvesting Quality Apples and Pears’ issued in 2006 and ‘Creating Champion employees’ issued in 2008. The ‘Keeping it Clean’ DVD issued by HDC in 2007 is relevant to the harvest operation.

Only select and place in the bin Class 1 fruits, picked in such a way as to avoid damage.  “Apples bruise more easily than eggs break”.

Specification requirement

In order to maximise the financial return it is important that pickers pick fruit that has the potential to meet the final pack specification. Even if 100% of the fruit selected by the picker meets this specification, the handling of the fruit from tree to final packed unit can reduce that percentage dramatically. Therefore it is vital that selection by the picker equals as near as possible the customer specification requirement.

To meet this objective it is important to:

  • Identify the potential customer, be it multiple retailer, wholesaler or processor.
  • Identify the criteria within each customer specification.
  • Assess the potential grade-out of the crop within an orchard against planned customer specification.
  • Evaluate the potential financial return, taking into consideration the handling, storage, packing and marketing costs.
  • Decide which customer the fruit is targeted at.

Fruit that has no chance of achieving a positive financial return should be removed in advance of harvest. To achieve the optimum quality and volume performance from each picker, the picker should only have two decisions to make:

  1. Is it the correct size?
  2. Has it got the right colour? 

Progressive growers in other countries achieve this by the systematic removal of sub-standard fruits during the thinning operations at various stages of the season, starting at the fruitlet stage and continuing during the summer.

Planning

Identify factors that will enable efficient harvesting and handling to take place

  • Estimate the yield within the orchard.
  • Calculate the number of bins required.
  • Ensure all bins have been checked and are fit for purpose.
  • Ensure there is as near as possible a smooth surface, free of potholes and ruts for pickers, bulk bins and tractors.
  • Ensure all equipment such as tractors, pallet loaders, picking trains, trailers/transporters have been serviced prior to harvest.
  • Check picking buckets are in good order and free of dust, dirt and rough surfaces.
  • Estimate the potential of each picker and ensure enough resources have been allocated for the job.

Training of pickers and supervisors

Ensure pickers and supervisors have been trained. Where possible this should be done in advance of the first day of picking.

  • Organise training courses for supervisors with a qualified instructor. The greatest influence on reduction of bruising will be gained by effective supervision.
  • Organise training courses for pickers. Where possible this should be done in advance of the day of picking. Ideally gather the pickers together for a 2-hour training session. It is important that pickers understand where the apples they are picking will end up and a simple process flow example of the passage of fruit from the orchard to the supermarket shelf will help to indicate the importance of their actions.
  • Where picking trains are used, ensure that pickers and supervisors are adequately trained and understand the system to be used

Key factors in the training course are:

  • Health and safety.
  • Hygiene.
  • Proper use of the picking bucket.
  • What to pick.
  • Simple instruction on size evaluation.
  • Correct methods of picking – how to handle fruit without bruising it.
  • Correct approach to picking branches and trees.
  • Correct procedure for emptying the bucket into the bin without causing damage to the fruit.
  • Correct use of ladders or steps (where necessary).
  • Team work if using picking trains.

Bin placement for picking without trains

During harvesting bins should be placed in a way that ensures that their subsequent movement is minimised and allows them to be picked up by the tractor/pallet loader without damage to the bin or fruit, while allowing the pickers easy access, without unnecessary walking with a full picking bucket. Surveys carried out by FAST Ltd have linked the extent of bruising to the number of bin movements. The following points should be considered:

  • Use the knowledge gained from crop estimates to ensure the correct number of bins is available.
  • When placing the bins in the orchard ensure the position of each bin is optimised, in particular that the runners do not drop into any ruts making removal by pallet transporters difficult.
  • Where growers have large enough orchards with intensive single row systems, it can be more cost and quality efficient to use bins mounted on low specially designed trailers, drawn between the rows by mini tractors and with small groups of pickers picking directly into the bins.
  • Very large orchards with bed systems can be more efficiently picked using a self-propelled picking truck with transfer belts positioned within close reach of each picker.

Picking trains

When using picking trains, all staff must receive full training prior to picking.  It is important to cover health and safety considerations of working close to moving machinery.

The following points should be considered:

  • The number of pickers to allocate to each gang. From experience most growers feel that 6-8 is the ideal number and it should always be an even number so they pick up the row evenly. Also, if possible, it is good practice to keep the gang members the same from one day to the next
  • The number of bins to have on each train. If there are not enough bins the train fills up before the end of the row, but if the train is too long it can cause problems when turning at the end.
  • The number of trains to have per orchard. This depends on the size of the orchard and whether all fruit has to be picked as quickly as possible e.g. all fruit is destined for one CA store.
  • The length of the orchard rows. Growers need to plan where the next train will need to be to ensure even picking of the orchard
  • The support system the trees are on (post & wire/ individual stakes).This affects how many rows can be picked at one time
  • The quantity of fruit that will be picked per row (selective picking or strip picking). This affects how many trains, pickers, bins and supervisors will be needed.
  • The supervision of the gang. Some growers use one supervisor per gang and others have a mobile supervisor across all gangs in the orchard as well as a supervisor checking quality back in the yard.
  • The payment of the gang. Will it be piece work per bin, hourly with a bin bonus? This also affects how to control quality.
  • The transport of the bins back to the main yard. Will the train take them back, or will the bins be removed at the side of the orchard and taken back on a separate trailer? This will affect how many trains are required. If fruit is being unloaded in the yard it is necessary to ensure that the gangs always have additional trains to pick into.

Equipment

Choose suitable equipment that matches the scale of the operation

  • Picking buckets should be selected and adjusted to meet the capability of pickers.
  • Tractors should be able to access the rows without causing damage to the trees or fruit.
  • Pallet forks should be of the type that allows easy access and removal from beneath the bulk bins.

Supervision of pickers

Supervision of pickers is critical if damage to fruit during picking is to be minimised.

  • If using trains, pickers should be organised into groups according to ability to ensure pickers are not being ‘carried’ by others and causing bad feeling amongst the group. This will then make supervision easier and it is important that pickers should not be left without supervision for long periods.
  • If trains are not used, then the supervisor should be given a gang to oversee and ideally this should consist of about 10 pickers. If the gang is too big then the supervisor struggles to keep a close eye on each picker, as they ideally need to view a bin twice before it is full.
  • Supervisors should be capable of controlling the pickers with authority, but should be accessible and able to give advice while maintaining respect from the pickers.
  • Supervisors should brief their group at the start of each day, or as soon as practicable, to remind them of any key points found during the previous day’s picking.
  • To control pickers efficiently supervisors should have access to quality control (QC) assessments carried out at the packhouse/storage centre on each picker’s fruit.
  • The practice of combining the roles of supervisor and tractor driver should be avoided.
  • The picking supervisor is able to observe faults in the pickers working methods in the orchard and must be trained to do so.  Early detection and correction of poor picking practices will eliminate this particular cause of fruit damage.
  • Communication is crucial between all parties during picking. Pickers can become frustrated if there is too much ‘down time’ during the day and supervisors can become de-motivated if they are not kept up-to-date with information e.g. which orchard will be picked next and feedback of quality assessments.

 

Safety, health and hygiene

Before starting work all pickers should, as part of their induction, be made fully aware of safety, health and hygiene requirements necessary to meet HSE and Food Safety Regulations.

  • Any features of the site operation that could affect the picker or any other person present should be made known to the picker as part of the induction.
  • The location of toilets and hand washing facilities must be clearly indicated to the picker.
  • The location and name of the first aid person must be clearly available to the picker.
  • A hygiene notice embodying all the key legal health, hygiene and safety requirements must be handed to each picker, this should be read, understood (translation provided where required) and signed by the picker and returned to the management and filed against a register of pickers’ names.
  • Signs indicating the site safety, health and hygiene requirements should be clearly displayed where pickers will be aware of the requirements.
  • Extra safety considerations need to be made if a picking train is being used, and it is a good idea to devise a set of ‘rules’ e.g. no picker to approach the train when the tractor horn has been sounded.

Quality control in the orchard

A systematic approach to quality control (QC) in the orchard should be exercised, monitoring the performance of each picker against the required standard.

  • Periodic assessment of fruit picked by each picker should take place during the working day. Samples should be taken directly from the bins for this purpose.
  • An independent QC check on each picker’s fruit should be made the following morning when any bruising not evident on the day of picking will be identifiable. Some bruises may not appear until 12 hours after picking.
  • If fruit (as is likely) leaves the site for a central storage site, supervisors should sample and label a minimum of 50 apples from each picker’s bins and carry out an assessment the following morning.
  • Where trains are used, no one picker can be singled out, unless it is very clear that there is one picker who is picking below standard, so each gang must be treated as a whole, regardless of individual protests
  • Where an independent QC carries out a QC check the next day the results should be recorded and passed back to the orchard supervisor, who should take action accordingly.

Bin labelling for traceability

Traceability is crucial, and it starts in the orchard. Clear identification of critical information must be secured to the bin before it leaves the orchard. 

  • Critical identification information, which must be traceable from when the bin leaves the orchard, is grower, orchard, cultivar, pick date and picker or gang.
  • It is important to remember that whatever system is used, it must be robust enough to ensure that even after handling the bin many times, the fruit is still traceable to the particular orchard in case of any residue/ contamination  issues.
  • There are various systems used by growers to identify bins. 
  1. A label containing the above information. This is ideally a 3-part system, allowing one part to be affixed to the bin, one part to be handed to the picker (which acts as a receipt to guarantee payment) and the third part to be handed to the office for accounting and payment purposes.
  2. An identity label with a unique lot reference number that is supported by a reference document containing the essential information.
  3. An electronic system such as ‘Crop-Picker’ or ‘Pickwise’ is a good way to record bins picked out in the orchard and then can be downloaded on a computer at the end of the day.
  4. Crop-Picker is supplied by Crop-Ware Ltd (www.cropware.co.uk)
  5. Pickwise is supplied by Supply Chains Systems Ltd (www.pickwise.co.uk)