Mechanical harvesting of selected vegetables - feasibility study (VG05073)
This is a final research report from Hort Innovation’s historical archives. Please note that as these reports may date back as far as the 1990s, the content and recommendations within them may be superseded by more recent research.
What was it all about?
The project was designed to conduct a scoping study that defined the existing mechanical harvesting techniques and practices, adoption of mechanical harvesting in the Australian vegetable supply chain, issues of technology impact on supply chains and barriers to adoption of technology including capital costs and needs for change.
The pressure from the major retailers to have consistent year round supply lines was forcing the creation of super farms and marketing conglomerates capable of dealing in volume quantities.
There were moves by large processors, large food service sectors and some retailers to take their supply away from the domestic market suppliers to offshore supply, taking advantage of either better pricing or more consistent quality.
In order to compete with these directional changes, Growers needed to vastly improve their handling techniques, internal cost structures and negotiating skills. This included the obvious move to greater mechanization using machinery, robotics, more sophisticated grading and packing equipment, HACCP elements, a reduction in handling and greater on farm processing in order to bring better farm gate returns.
At the time there were two development platforms for mechanical harvesters. The first and most common was a system that harvested all of the biomass and allowed the grading and further processing to be made off-field. Examples of this platform were those being used for broccoli, leeks, onions, lettuce, carrots and potatoes. The second platform was not widespread but was under serious development. It used sensing devices to determine fitness for purpose of plants for harvest, sophisticated cutting and in field processing. Examples of this selective harvesting platform were being developed at the time for lettuce and cauliflower.
Crops considered for investment in mechanical harvesting included Asian Vegetables, Celery, Cauliflower, leafy salad, Tomato, Wongbok and Zucchini.
National gains achieved from these crops resulting from recovery of lost export markets and reduced on farm costs were estimated at $60 to 100 million per year.
Costs of establishing agronomic systems, harvester development, materials handling and further mechanization/automation were estimated at $10.5 to 15 million over three to five years for a concerted R&D program. Further assistance may have been needed to be provided for other vegetables that were expanding through minimal processing activities to meet consumer needs.
There was a defined need to extend marketing support for Growers into export markets against international benchmarks for all components of the production, processing and marketing system.
Barriers to adoption of new technologies were considered to be lack of understanding of the need to be internationally competitive, removal of extension support by governments, lack of co-ordination of R&D activities with extension and diffusion forces across the industry sector and the high risk associated with development at a farm level.
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This project was funded by Hort Innovation (then Horticulture Australia Limited) with the voluntary financial support of the vegetable industry.
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