May 21, 2015
Conveyor machine keeps harvest labor costs down

When Jim Abma began growing produce on a large scale a few years ago for his family’s 85-year-old farm in Wyckoff, New Jersey, he realized he had a problem.

Long-time poultry farmers, Abma Farm had been transitioning into growing produce for about 25 years. Previously supplying eggs to customers in New York City, they started utilizing a building on site for retail and began growing their own fruits and vegetables to sell there.

Then their wholesale produce business took off.

“Two years ago we started selling to chain stores, so our wholesale market picked up,” Abma said.

With their own and rented land around the area, the Abmas are growing on about 110 acres now. However, he soon realized it was taking too long and too much labor to harvest his sweet corn, tomatoes, eggplant and similar produce.

“We were doing it all by hand, by the bushel basket,” Abma said. “The labor bill was a lot … and we wanted to speed things up.”

Enter the Veg-Veyer. Created in the 1980s by Mike Rasch, a fifth-generation farmer in Conklin, Michigan, the Veg-Veyer is a mobile conveyor system for harvesting hand-picked vegetables.

It was an invention that grew from necessity, Rasch said.

“We grew a lot of cauliflower on the farm at that time – all hand-picked, labor-intensive and you have to carry it out of the field by hand,” he said.

He looked for automated equipment that could solve the problem.

“There wasn’t anything available just to reduce the time it took to get it out of the field and to reduce the hard work of carrying stuff out of the field,” he said. “I just developed it as a farmer and had seen the need.”

Working at a welding shop at the time, Rasch created the first prototype.

“The conveyor does the work for you,” he said, explaining that workers put the produce – hand-picked items like sweet corn, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, hard squash, summer squash, watermelons, pumpkins, peppers, eggplant – on a conveyor belt that gets towed by a tractor and moves through the field as they follow along behind it in a row.

The belt runs at variable speeds, carrying the produce to a center conveyor. That carries it to a wagon where workers either put it in bins or field pack it.

“We scaled it so it could go on a three-point hitch of any tractor,” he said. “You don’t need a big self-propelled machine to own one. That way, you can keep the cost down.”

At first, his invention stayed on his farm. But the family saw a market for it and decided to begin making them.

“I just started building them at my place,” he said. “I had to build a special facility for it, so I built a pole barn in probably ’87 or ’88.”

He named his company Harvest Products. The rest is history, with about 500 sold over the past two decades. The Veg-Veyer can be purchased with single or double-sided conveyors. Side and back conveyors can be made in different lengths to match row width and are adjustable for different heights.

“I do it a lot myself and my son is helping me now, and I’ve got one part-time person,” Rasch said.

Back at the Abma farm, the Veg-Veyer has become essential to operations, said Abma, who uses it in concert with a corn de-tasseler.

“We go through and cut the corn down to about eight inches above the ear,” he said. Then the Veg-Veyer and workers come through.

Abma also modified it a little to suit his needs.

“The rear unloader was in a stationary position, so we put a swivel on it so it can go back and forth and side to side,” he said.

Harvest time has been reduced, and so has his cost of labor.

“We went from having 14 guys pick 300 bags of corn in two hours down to picking 400 bags of corn in roughly an hour and a half,” Abma said. “I’d say it saves me time on sweet corn and also it cut my labor bill in half.”

Chuck Mohler, who owns Sweet Corn Charlie Produce in Millersburg, Indiana, acquired his first Veg-Veyer in 1989.

“I needed something badly,” he said.

Having people carry sacks through the field was not only time consuming, but caused damage to the corn.

Besides picking corn, Mohler has used the equipment to harvest cabbage, squash, cucumber and the like.

“It’s just excellent for stuff like this that’s put down on the ground,” Mohler said.

He just ordered a second one, which he says makes his workers happy.

“The guys like using it,” he said. “It not only carries the load but it organizes the workers in the field. It brings organization to the picking operation.

“It’s a harvest aid.”

The Veg-Veyer retails between $10,000 and $20,000. Mohler laughs if you ask him if it’s worth the investment.

“There’s no comparison,” he said. “I wouldn’t do this business without it. It’s just too hard.”

Abma is of similar mind, saying, “I think I already paid myself back.”

Kathy Gibbons

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