Hourly rates pushing adoption of platforms

Sept. 12, 2022 | 5 Min read
Work platforms are one way that growers can address the twin issues of worker productivity and availability.

The Fair Work Commission ruling on hourly rates early this year has pushed growers to look at ways to increase the productivity of workers.

At the same time, faced with extreme worker shortages, growers are also looking to increase the pool of available workers to carry out critical and time sensitive tasks like fruit picking.

The use of work platforms is one way that growers have been able to address the twin issues of worker productivity and availability.

Jason Shields, orchard manager of Plunkett Orchards in Ardmona, Victoria has been using work platforms at his orchard over the last few seasons with great success.

Plunkett Orchards is a large operation with 250 hectares under trees, the majority of which are apples and pears. They have been using the Piuma work platform manufactured by Revo in Italy which Mr Shields first saw in operation on an APAL study tour in Italy in 2018.

“The work platforms have been fantastic for harvesting pome fruit,” Mr Shields said. “They make picking so much easier and less physical that it takes very little time to bring new workers up to the efficiency level of experienced pickers. That’s important to us when we are now paying hourly rates.

“The use of platforms means there is little overall difference in the picking cost per bin between experienced and inexperienced crews.”

Piuma work platforms are distributed by GV Crop Protection in Shepparton. Since first bringing the Revo Piuma into Australia the demand has been very strong with around 70 in action now across Australia.

“The benefits to the local apple and pear growers who adopted the platforms were obvious and immediate,” said Graeme McNeill, manager at GV Crop Protection. “We thought if the work platform concept works so well in apples and pears, we couldn’t see why it wouldn’t work in other crops as well.

“Some citrus and avocado growers who could see the benefits of the work platforms approached us about the Piuma. So, we set about trialling them in their citrus and avocado orchards to give them a ‘goof test’.

In the citrus orchard the Piuma was trialled during a mandarin harvest. The orchard planting configuration was of normal density. In citrus most of the fruit is growing on the outer part of the tree which make it easily accessible for workers on the Piuma.

“The grower remarked that it took only a couple of days for his inexperienced pickers to be picking the same number of bins per day as his experienced pickers, whereas it would normally take a week to ten days for them to reach that level,” Mr McNeill said.

“The quality of the mandarins in the bin was much better. Because the workers were being paid hourly the stems were being clipped properly and there were less stem punctures. So, the grower was getting a better packout, yet bin picking costs were similar to when they weren’t using a platform. The workers were happy too, meaning lower staff turnover.”

The use of the platform in mandarins demonstrated that it was effective in reducing harvest costs and improving overall efficiency. The grower noted that if he were to use a hedging bar once every second season, for example, then he could create a flat ‘fruiting wall’ that would improve picking efficiency even further with the Piuma.

Results were similarly impressive in avocado. “The avocado orchard where we trialled the Piuma was a higher density planting than average,” Mr McNeill said. “But the results and benefits were like what we saw with the other fruit types and orchards.

“The avocado grower was similarly impressed; they have purchased a Piuma and will look to adapt their orchard to better suit work platforms while continuing to use the Piuma.”

Meanwhile at Ardmona, Mr Shields has been able to attract a greater pool of workers to pick fruit at Plunkett Orchards.

“Using the Piuma for us has not just been about saving money but has been about attracting workers,” he said. “There is an absolute shortage of workers and because the platforms eliminate the physicality of carrying bags and climbing up and down ladders it means that casual staff willingly return to work with us, while others seek us out for employment.

“What many people don’t realise is that only 10–15 per cent of the working population is physically capable of picking fruit the ‘old’ way. The platforms make the work less physical, meaning more workers can participate – and make good wages! It has enabled a lot more women to take on picking too.”

The Piuma is a versatile machine and is more than an aid for use during the picking season. The six conveyors can be removed, and the machine can then be used during pruning. Mr Shields said the Piuma has improved pruning efficiency by up to 70 per cent on his orchard.

“Pruners no longer need to be walking up and down ladders and then shifting them to the next tree. The pruners stand on the platforms, adjust their height, make their cuts, and then the Piuma self-drives to the next tree. It is not only faster, but less physically exhausting for the pruners.

“The fact that the Piuma can be used for pruning as well as picking was a major factor in our decision to invest in the machines. We have been using these labour assist machines for over three seasons and now have ten operating on our orchard.”

With successful use in avocado and citrus Mr McNeill said it seems work platforms like to the Piuma are about to become widely adopted across the fruit industry.

“They are going to be key to solving labour issues such as maximising cost-effective use of labour under hourly rate legislation and widening the pool of workers available for labour intensive operations like picking and pruning,” he said.

Categories Harvesting Pruning Technology in agriculture

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