Mechanical Harvest of Cider Apples

Reducing the costs of harvest labor is a major concern for many producers of agricultural crops, and cider apples are definitely among those with high potential for innovation. Many cider apple varieties have small fruit, compared to standard dessert apples, so it can take as much as 4 times longer to hand-pick a bin of cider apples. However, unlike fruit intended for the fresh market, fruit for cider is usually pressed shortly after picking, so any fruit damage resulting from mechanical picking is of little concern.

Harvest Innovations: Research at WSU Mount Vernon

Small-fruit harvesters are common in western Washington, where raspberries and blueberries are widely planted crops. At the time of cider apple harvest, berry season is over and the harvesters are available for use in picking cider apples. Modern apple trellising systems, with closely planted trees on dwarfing rootstocks, are well suited to picking with mechanized harvesters.

MechanicalHarvesterIn 2002–2003 a cider apple planting was established on a low trellis, with trees grafted to strongly dwarfing rootstocks M27 and M9, for the purpose of testing this harvest method. A preliminary trial in 2007 was promising. In 2011 and 2012 a replicated trial was conducted in this trellis planting using a mechanical raspberry harvester (Littau Model OR0012) to examine the possible effects of mechanical harvest on the quality of juice, overall harvest efficiency, and factors that may affect future training and pruning methods.ApplesInHarvester

Data measured in this trial included both mechanical and traditional hand harvest (for comparison): pick time, harvest weight and weight of apples left on the tree by the mechanical picker, weight of post harvest groundfall fruit, efficiency (% of fruit picked), post harvest tree damage, and analysis of juice characteristics (°Brix, pH, malic acid, tannin, and specific gravity) from fruit pressed immediately after harvest, and after 2 and 4 weeks of cold storage at 36° F.

Research Reports

  • WSU Mount Vernon NWREC Annual Report 2011:  Hard Cider. Carol Miles, Jonathan Roozen, Andrew Zimmerman, Karen Hasenoehrl, and Jacqueline King. This annual report includes information on the first trial of mechanical harvest at WSU Mount Vernon.
  • Alexander, T., E. Scheenstra, J. King, and C.A. Miles. 2016. Innovations In Mechanical Harvest For Cider Apples. HortScience 51(9):S127.
  • Alexander, T., J. King, E. Scheenstra, and C.A. Miles. 2016. Yield, fruit damage, yield loss and juice quality characteristics of machine and hand harvested ‘Brown Snout’ specialty cider apple stored at ambient conditions in northwest Washington. HortTechnology 26(5):614-619.
  • Yield, labor, and fruit and juice quality characteristics of machine and hand-harvested ‘Brown Snout’ specialty cider apple. Carol A. Miles and Jaqueline King. 2014. HortTechnology 24(5):519-526.


European Systems

Photo: Weston & Sons Cider(UK)

Photo: Weston & Sons Cider(UK)

Mechanized harvest systems for cider apples have been common in Europe for years. Many traditional cider orchards in England and France are made up of large trees on vigorous rootstocks, free standing and widely spaced. At harvest time, tree shakers knock down the ripe fruit, which is then swept from the ground into a mechanized collector, often equipped with blowers to remove leaves and debris, and loaded into bins. Mechanical harvest technology uses methods designed for varying tree sizes and spacings, farm scale, and grower needs.

Many different systems are currently available:

Some systems use collecting nets:

Other systems are adaptable to closely planted orchards, and for smaller-scale operation: