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.
Proof of Concept: Over-the-row Mechanical Harvest
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.
From 2002–2003, a cider apple planting was established on a low trellis, with trees grafted to strongly dwarfing rootstocks M27 and M9. From 2011 to 2016, replicated trials were conducted using a mechanical raspberry harvester (Littau Model OR0012) and two post-harvest storage treatments (0, 2, and 4 weeks cold and ambient storage) to examine the possible effects of harvest method.
Mechanical Cider Harvest 2011 (Video) Using Littau small fruit over-the-row harvester at WSU Mount Vernon NWREC.
European Mechanized Harvest Systems
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.