Hand Harvesting

Hand harvesting the highest-quality fruit requires special knowledge about the crop and the necessary harvest equipment. Most tree fruit crops, even those grown on dwarfing rootstocks, require some use of ladders for harvesting (Figure H1.1). Stepladders are generally used for smaller trees (up to 3.5 meters height), while straight ladders are used for taller trees (14.5 meters or above), although in some areas, such as Washington State, stepladders are used even for the taller trees. Traditionally, these ladders were constructed of a lightweight wood such as basswood, but more recently, aluminum has replaced wood. Aluminum ladders have a longer life and are less subject to breakage under the weight of a picker carrying a container of fruit. Some growers use only stepladders to avoid knocking fruit from the tree, which often occurs when a straight ladder is inserted into the tree canopy. Orchard stepladders (sometimes called tripod ladders) are

FIGURE H1.1. Various styles of aluminum stepladders used to hand harvest tree fruit crops

designed with three legs to provide stability on uneven ground. Both stepladders and straight ladders are built with a wide base that narrows at the top. This offers stability while minimizing resistance when inserting the ladder into the canopy. Straight ladders are carried in an upright position as pickers move around the tree and from tree to tree. Skill is required to balance the ladder in an upright position, and pickers should be instructed in the proper and safe use of ladders at the beginning of harvest.

Lightweight canvas, plastic, or sheet metal containers are used to collect fruit crops such as apple, peach, and pear as they are harvested from the tree. Containers are fitted with heavy cloth straps worn over the picker's shoulders to support the harvested fruit, thus freeing hands to climb the ladder and to harvest fruit. Over the years, most of the flexible canvas picking "bags" have been replaced by rigid picking buckets (Figure H1.2) that may be fitted with soft, padded linings. These picking containers help reduce damage to the fruit as it is being harvested and transported from the tree to the bulk collection container. Sweet cherries are hand harvested in flats, trays, or buckets (typically about 7.5-liter containers). Tart (sour) cherries for a local fresh market may also be harvested by hand, but most sour cherries are mechanically harvested.

Bruising is the primary damage associated with hand-harvested fruit. Special care must be taken in removing fruit from the tree, placing it in the picking bucket, and in emptying fruit into the bulk container. An apple or pear is harvested by grasping the fruit with the fingers while it rests in the palm of the hand, lifting it upward, and

FIGURE H1.2. A rigid canvas picking bucket commonly used to harvest apples, pears, and peaches

twisting slightly to separate the fruit stem from the spur. If an apple is harvested by pulling straight down, the stem will often be removed, and sometimes the spur will also be detached from the tree. Spur damage or detachment reduces future crops and may lead to disease, especially in stone fruit. Pickers can also cause puncture damage to fruit skin with their fingernails. Wearing gloves is recommended to alleviate this problem.

Because peaches have short stems, they may be harvested by pulling straight down or away, particularly when attached near the base of large shoots. If a peach growing near the base of a large shoot is harvested by twisting, the skin near the stem end will often be broken. Peaches attached toward the apex of thin shoots may be harvested by pulling while giving a slight twisting motion. Peaches harvested at a "tree-ripe" stage of maturity are more subject to finger bruise damage than are fruit harvested at the firm-ripe stage.

Sweet cherries have traditionally been harvested with their stems (pedicels) attached. Since the picker is not handling the fruit directly but is grasping the stem, the opportunity for fruit damage is reduced.

Stemmed cherries are visually attractive and thought to have less spoilage than stemless cherries, since the flesh is not torn at the stem and fruit junction. In the eastern United States, sweet cherries that are sold directly to the retail market are sometimes harvested without the stems attached. Stemless sweet cherries should be harvested fully mature, since the fruit must readily detach from the stem with light finger pressure.

Harvested fruit are generally emptied into large bulk containers in the field for transport to the packinghouse or the processing plant. These "bulk bins" come in various sizes and are constructed of several materials, including wood, plastic, and steel. Plastic bins are lighter, cool more quickly in storage, and do not harbor disease, which is a problem with wooden bins. When used properly, plastic bulk bins last longer than wooden bins. Most bins have slots in the sides and bottoms to allow for movement of air and water; however, solid bins are used for tart cherries since they are transported in water. To minimize bruise damage to soft fruit, shallow bins should be used or large bins should not be filled to capacity.

Harvest employees are either paid by the "piece rate" or on an hourly basis to hand harvest fruit. Piece rate payment is generally based on the size of a container. For apples, the common measure is a bushel (19 kilograms) or a bulk bin (typically a 342- to 475-kilogram container). Cherry pickers may be paid by the pail or the flat harvested. Payment by piece rate often leads to more fruit damage, since this method encourages pickers to harvest as many containers as possible within the work day. When pickers are paid an hourly rate, speed is not a priority and tonnage is sacrificed for quality.

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