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Everyday Business | Rise of the machines can benefit orchardists

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Human-like robots won’t be picking apples any time soon, says a regional tree fruit expert. But snazzy machines are already making orchard work easier, more efficient and more profitable — with more innovations on the way.

Karen Lewis, a specialist with the Washington State University Extension in Ephrata, detailed on Thursday how mechanization is changing orchard tasks such as pruning, thinning and harvesting for growers across the state. She spoke via a video feed at the annual WSU Apple Day in Wenatchee.

Machines in use today aren’t just gee-whiz gizmos or conversation starters, said Lewis. “We’re way past the day when you should be owning ‘toys,’” she said. “Any investment you make now in machines needs to deliver profits, needs to make you money.”

Growers require the same qualities in an orchard machine that they would of any farm equipment, she said. It needs to be affordable, reliable, safe, simple and, if possible, serve more than one purpose.

If it moves on four wheels, then it should have a variety of uses,” Lewis said.

She advised orchardists planting new blocks for new apple varieties to plan ahead for mechanization — consider in advance the types of machines and work they’ll do, adjust row width to accommodate equipment, consider tree height before investing. Certain trellis systems lend themselves better to mechanized tasks than others.

Other observations from Lewis:

<> Mechanized pruning — Pruning machines are limited in what they can do. Today’s machine can clip branches protruding into a row, but most often leaves branches that run parallel to trellis wires. The best pruning happens with a combination of machines and human workers. That’s because the expert pruner “has a brain and eyes and hands” to know and judge for “optimum canopy management.”

<> Mechanized thinning — A sweep down a row with a thinning machine can reduce follow-up hand thinning by up to 50 percent. Hand-held thinning machines — they look like souped-up string trimmers for lawns — can cover 10 times the trees of flesh-and-blood workers, but the human touch remains important for quality bloom management.

<> Mechanized harvesting — Lewis said no machine yet developed can beat the region’s high-quality expert pickers in speed and efficiency. But using platform machines to carry both pickers and bins increases worker safety and harvesting efficiency. “These machines get people off ladders and bring them closer to the bins,” she said. Many platforms are designed to move down a row with pickers standing at different heights with receiving bins just an arm’s length away.

Legislature to consider tourism funding

Our state could finally get back its tourism office — well, something like it anyway — if legislation introduced last week in the state House and Senate gets a thumbs-up.

The Washington Tourism Alliance hopes passage of the bills will establish a Tourism Marketing Authority to oversee up to $5 million in state funding — plus $10 million in donations — for tourism promotion during each of the legislature’s two-year-budget cycle. Tourism funding was slashed and the state tourism office closed in 2011. 

Washington is the only state in the union that does not have a statewide tourism program,” said Rep. Cary Condotta, R-Wenatchee, a sponsor of the House bill. “With this legislation, a small investment by the state should see double or even triple the return from the tourism industry. It’s a great way to raise revenue without raising taxes.”

Tourism is the state’s fourth-largest industry and raises about $1.8 billion annually in local and state tax revenues, according to the WTA.

A hearing for the House bill (HB 1123) will be held Wednesday before the House Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs Committee. A hearing for the Senate bill (SB 5251) hasn’t yet been scheduled.

This weekly column is compiled from “Everyday Business,” a blog by World reporter Mike Irwin. You can reach him at 665-1179 or

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business. follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.