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Apples sit in a bin after being harvested at Riveridge Produce in Sparta, Mich. The apple harvest in Michigan this year is projected to be about ten times larger than in 2012. (NPR)

Michigan Apple Harvest Recovers, But Pickers Are Scarce

Oct 22, 2013 (Morning Edition)

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An apple picker sits atop the platform of a prototype apple-picking machine at Riveridge Produce.

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Reported by

Noah Adams

One year ago the Michigan apple harvest, hurt by a late winter warm-up and a spring freeze, was almost nonexistent at 3 million bushels. This fall, the crop is projected to yield a record-setting 30 million bushels, but now there's concern that not enough pickers will be in the orchards.

In west Michigan, there's an apple-growing region called The Ridge, where they will be talking for years down the road about that bleak 2012 apple calendar. At the time, grower Phil Schwallier said it was so bad they gave individual names to each apple they found, starting with Alice.

"We got up to Rachel. We found, in other words, about 20 apples," he said.

Fast forward a year and Schwallier says he is seeing a lot of great apples. "Blemish-free, large, nice red color, and firm," he says. "And they're sticking on the trees so far."

When the apples are ready and ripe, getting them picked could be a problem. Even though there's more money on the trees, not enough seasonal workers have shown up. But so far, the harvest is reported to be on track.

One solution to the problem of not enough workers is an apple-picking machine, like the one being tested on a farm called Riveridge Produce. It looks like something that could have come from the sketchpad of Dr. Seuss.

A platform moves between the rows of trees with two pickers riding on each side. They place the fruit into small buckets that connect by vacuum hoses to a bin below. The machine is a prototype of a Vacuum Apple Harvester. It would cost about $150,000, but when the harvest numbers are up, equipment can start looking good.

"I think there's some real potential for what we're seeing here," says Justin Finkler, who works for Riveridge Produce. "The ability to keep people off of ladders [and] the option to pick at night, that's something that's never been done before. To run this thing 24/7 is a huge advantage."

Despite the advantage, technology or not, a single apple must still be picked, in one precise motion, by one person.

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