Good Fruit Grower

December 2013

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Entrepreneur focuses on apple picking WSU graduate student Mark De Kleine is exploring ways to remove apples from the tree more quickly. PHOTO BY GERALDINE WARNER by Geraldine Warner Mark De Kleine demonstrates an experimental mechanical hand-held tree shaking device. Products & Solutions for Agricultural Safety Chemical Protective Suit Chemical Gloves Full-Face Respirator Half-Face Respirator Chemical Splash Goggles Chemical Resistant Boots Disposable and Reusable Suits Available Safety First: Follow chemical manufacturer's guidelines for decontaminating the spray suite. Do not use suit if there are cuts, holes, tears, missing snaps, or separated seams. Add a Cooling-Vest on hot days as a heat stress precaution Washington - Idaho - Oregon - Shop Online 1-800-765-9055 72 DECEMBER 2013 GOOD FRUIT GROWER ark De Kleine came to Washington State University two years ago as a doctoral student with the idea of developing new ways to mechanically harvest apples for the fresh market. He knew it had been tried before. His literature searches showed that back in the 1950s and 1960s, the industry was voicing the same fears as today about shortages of harvest labor. In fact, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission was founded in 1969 with the primary goal of pursuing mechanical harvesting. Today, fully mechanized apple harvesting is still a dream. Although a number of machines have been developed in recent years to assist harvest workers and improve efficiency, orchardists still depend on a human being to pick apples off the trees. Efforts to develop a robotic "end effector" (the gadget that actually picks the apple) have so far been fruitless, but De Kleine thinks there could be mechanical ways to —Mark De Kleine get the apples off the trees more quickly than a human can pick them. For his Ph.D. project, he's developing three different apple removal methods that might eventually work in tandem with the high-tech fruit transportation systems that have already been developed. "There are systems out there right now that are working on taking the apple from the picker to the bin," he said, citing the DBR, Picker Technologies, and Van Doren/Littau harvest-assist systems. "But it starts with the human. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel," he emphasized. "I'm trying to take pieces and fit them together in a system that works. Ultimately, it comes down to economics." He calculates that 14 billion apples are harvested in Washington each year for the fresh market. A worker can pick an apple per second. Previous research with robotic harvesters showed it could take eight or more seconds for a robot to locate an apple, grab it, and bring it to the bag, he said. "Ten seconds times 14 billion—that's a lot of seconds," he said. "Are there that many seconds in an eight-week harvest window?" M "Agriculture isn't a fad. It's something that's always been here. It's my passion." Better way Although De Kleine hadn't thought specifically about apple harvesting before applying to WSU, he recalls picking cherries on his family's farm at Grand Haven, Michigan, and thinking, 'There has to be a better way to do this!' and asking himself 'Is there some machine I can create to make this a little bit easier for me or someone else?'" His fascination with machines goes back much further. He was nine years old when someone at his church made him an offer he couldn't refuse: "I will sell you a snow blower for $5, but it doesn't work," the man told him. His father, Carl, a farmer with an agricultural engineering degree, helped him get the blower running and that winter De Kleine started a business blowing snow for the neighbors. "I came back and I had a wad of cash, and I'm nine years old," he recalled. "My parents are thinking, that's a lot of baseball cards!" The following summer, the neighbor across the street paid him $5 to mow his lawn, which led to a thriving and prosperous lawn-mowing business that De Kleine continued through college. Starting as a youngster, De Kleine enhanced his business by taking soil samples from his clients' yards to the Michigan State University extension office for nutrient analysis so he could advise on fertilizer applications. After earning a bachelor's degree in biosystems engineering at MSU, with an emphasis on power and machinery, he got a job at Caterpillar designing hydraulic systems for motor graders. He liked the job but decided to go back to MSU to earn a master's degree. For his master's project, he developed a chestnut harvesting system that separated the nuts from the burrs and orchard trash. It was a fun project that convinced him his future was in agricultural research. Then he saw an announcement from WSU's Center for Precision Agriculture and Automated Systems about an opening for a Ph.D student in mechatronics. He knew that Washington was a big player in specialty crop agriculture and felt sure that precision agriculture represented the future of the industry.

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