There was an air of reunion on the floor of the Yakima Valley SunDome on opening day of the Northwest Hort Expo.
The topic on the tip of everyone’s tongues: labor.
Of course, labor costs have been rising for years, but it’s just in the past year or two that many growers have realized that it’s more cost effective to invest in equipment rather than people, said Mike Hanks, operations manager for Blueline Manufacturing. He’s hearing a lot more interest in new tractors that offer driverless technologies, for example, in addition to harvest platforms that make crews more efficient at a wide variety of orchard tasks.
Another mechanization option that’s drawing a lot of attention is leaf blowers or defoliators, which replace the tedious task of stripping leaves away from the fruit or laying out reflective fabric to boost color shortly before harvest.
Bryan Riel of Burrows Tractor said that he’s sold more than 30 of the REDpulse Duo, a defoliator developed by German company FruitTec, in the past two years, and has more interest in orders than he can get machines to fill. It saves labor and boosts fruit quality, he said.
SS Equipment, a New Holland distributor, also recently developed their own leaf blower, which packs a little more power and height than the equipment imported from Europe, said sales representative Danika Campos. So far, they’ve had a lot of interest, she added.
There were also two robotic harvest companies from Israel, Fresh Fruit Robotics and Tevel Aerobotics, as well as autonomous spraying technology on display in the form of fully autonomous, orchard-sized sprayer from GUSS and after-market autonomy kits from Fieldin, a tractor fleet management technology company.
Even pest control companies were promoting their labor saving advantage. Scentry Biologicals, the makers of pheromone lures for mating disruption and pest monitoring, now offers combination pheromone spirals that slip onto branches to disrupt both codling moth and oriental fruit moth. For growers facing multiple pests, there’s a real labor advantage to distributing just one product, rather than two, said Scentry’s director of research and development, G.T. Bohmfalk.
The NW Hort Expo continues Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to noon.