Labour assist platform improves efficiency

Though it’s only spring, most fruit growers are already planning how they can secure workers for fruit picking come the end of summer. It is one of the biggest issues facing Australian horticulture today, but one innovative Goulburn Valley pome fruit producer has found a proven way to attract and retain staff.

Jason Shields is orchard manager at Plunkett Orchards at Ardmona, Victoria. Plunkett Orchards is a large operation with 250 hectares under trees, the majority being apples and pears. They have a large staffing requirement with employee numbers ranging from 40 up to 70 during the busy harvest period.

“During fruit picking about 95 per cent of our staff are either picking fruit, or operating machinery to remove bins from the field,or support the picking crews in other ways.

“All up, that’s about 60–70 people dedicated to picking during the harvest period,” Mr Shields said.

In 2018 while visiting Italy on an APAL study tour, Mr Shields saw the Piuma harvesting assistant in operation. He was impressed and started using it at Turnbull Orchards after talking with the local distributor of the equipment – GV Crop Protection in Shepparton.

Manufactured by Revo in Italy, the Piuma has two movable platforms and six conveyors that enable six pickers to pick fruit at different heights. The conveyors move fruit to be gently placed in a central bin. The Piuma eliminates the requirement for ladders which reduces damage to the fruit and does away with the physical requirement to carry heavy loads.

“It scores highly on all counts and has enabled us to concentrate our workforce in the orchard,” Mr Shields said.

“Before the introduction of the Piuma we would have two pickers working each row. This meant that the picking operation could be spread over a 500-metre radius making picking more difficult to supervise. It also meant longer distances to travel for machinery to pick up full bins and deliver empty ones.

“With the Piuma we can concentrate the workers around the machine, with six pickers working in each row. It means that supervising and bin transfer is so much more compacted and efficient. It saves us a lot of time and makes us more efficient.”

Picking can be very physical. Heavy loads need to be carried, ladders must be climbed and moved, often during hot weather. Not everyone is physically capable of picking fruit, which limits the pool of potential pickers available in regional communities.

“The Piuma platform has removed the requirement for ladders and heavy loads,” Mr Shields said. “Usually, only 5–10 per cent of the workforce have the physical capability to be competent pickers. With the introduction of this picking platform, the potential pool of pickers has greatly expanded to those with less physical strength.

“It has enabled a lot more women to take on picking and has given us the option to deploy staff who usually work in the packing house to picking operations when required. The Piuma has given us a lot more options.”

Following the Fair Work Commission hearing, Mr Shields said workers are likely to move to hourly rates rather than piece rates.

“Most experienced pickers of apples and pears would pick 4–6 bins a day but may have worked for two or three seasons to achieve that level. Novice pickers may only achieve half that number of bins which means that we must top them up to the hourly rate.

“Using the Piuma means that we are able to pick enough fruit to justify paying the hourly rate. Pickers can be up to speed in a matter of days, not years.”

Mr Shields said that the Piuma has improved fruit quality and pack out in the packing shed with a steep reduction in bruising and stem punctures.

“We have seen a 70 per cent reduction in fruit bruising and stem punctures and reject fruit,” he said. “The reduction in damage has seen an improvement in pack-out of 10–20 per cent.

“Assuming a bin price of $350 this means an additional return per bin of $35–$70. So, the Piuma doesn’t just save money, but it makes money for the grower as well.”

The Piuma is a versatile machine and not just 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 estimates the Piuma has improved pruning efficiency by up to 70 per cent.

“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, while 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.

“We will probably acquire more in the near future as the Piuma helps us to not only future proof our on-farm labour requirements but make us a lot more profitable and productive as well.”

The Piuma platforms can be used to harvest a wide range of fruits and would be suitable for any fruit tree structure that suits the use of a platform. Piuma platforms are currently being used in a wide range of geographies around Australia.

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