Feb 22, 2011
Machine makes it easier to pick strawberries

Some strawberry growers in southeastern Pennsylvania had a problem: The picking season in those parts lasts roughly four to six weeks, from mid-May until late June or so, and the strain of constantly bending over for berries gradually takes a toll. They needed to find a way to relieve their – and their workers’ – tired backs.

Fortunately for them, one of their neighbors had a potential solution. The neighbor was PBZ LLC, the manufacturing arm of Paul B. Zimmerman Inc., a family owned company based in Lancaster County, Pa.

Keith Zimmerman, president of PBZ, said the company’s solution for its neighboring strawberry growers was a machine called the Picking Assistant.

The Picking Assistant eases the physical strain on a worker and protects him from the weather. Both hands are free; he has a better view of what he’s doing; he can stay on task longer. In short, the machine makes a picker more efficient, Zimmerman said.

“We paid close attention to operator comfort,” he said. “The more comfortable you can make operators, the longer they can stick at the task without needing a break.”
It works like this: The worker lies facedown on the machine, his forehead, stomach and legs resting on (adjustable) pads. His face and hands are free, so he can view the row as the wheeled machine carries him over it and can pick whatever berries he sees. He controls acceleration with a foot pedal. As he slowly moves down the row, picking, he’s protected from sun and rain by a vinyl canopy. Steering is manual. Once the machine is pointed down a row – if the row is straight – it will stay in position, but the direction can be tweaked if need be, Zimmerman said.

According to the Picking Assistant’s web page (visit www.cropcareequipment.com and click on Vegetable Equipment), the machine is powered by a 12-volt DC battery and its forward and reverse motion by two high-torque, planetary gear motors. The battery and charger provide up to 16 hours of picking time. Height and width are adjustable.

The machine can carry up to six flats of strawberries, so the picker doesn’t have to set them down near the row for collection later. A tray on the back of the machine holds five flats, and the tray in front of the worker holds one, Zimmerman said.

The machine can be used on other crops besides strawberries, like beans and asparagus. It’s also good for planting, weeding and other types of row maintenance, according to the web page.

It took about three years for PBZ to develop the Picking Assistant for commercial production. During that time, the manufacturer tested prototypes on local farms and used that experience to improve the design. The machine was put on the market last spring, Zimmerman said.

John Shenk bought a Picking Assistant last year. The owner of Shenk’s Berry Farm near Lancaster, Pa., wanted to see if it would make his strawberry harvest more efficient. He also wanted to be able to pick during rainy days. Since his farm is only a few miles from PBZ, he got to experiment with one of the prototypes in 2009.

Shenk hires younger workers to pick his strawberries – mostly high school and college students. He let one of them, his nephew, operate the machine most of the time. His nephew seemed to like it. He’d lie in the machine, put on his headphones, turn on his iPod and go into a “picking zone” for hours. The machine didn’t get in the way of his headphone wires, either – an important point for younger workers, Shenk said.

When Shenk used the machine, he liked to get off and pick by hand every once in a while, just to change positions. But that was a personal preference on his part. At 55, he needs to work the kinks out every once in a while.

Shenk plans to use the machine to supplement his picking crew. He’ll also do some weeding with it. He doesn’t see the need to buy more than one model, however. That might work for larger farms, but he sells most of his berries from a roadside stand.

Shenk, who designs farm machinery in his spare time, said PBZ did a good job of coming up with something that’s functional but not too cumbersome. He likes that the Picking Assistant’s power source is electric, too – you don’t have to deal with the noise of a gas engine.

PBZ has sold about 75 Picking Assistants so far, mostly in Pennsylvania but a few in other states and Canada. Zimmerman expects out-of-state sales to increase in the future.

The machine sells for about $3,100, he said.

– Matt Milkovich

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