22 June 2001

No more backache

By Andy Collings

THOSE who grow asparagus on any scale will know that, with the need to pick the crop daily over a period of almost three months, its harvest can be pretty back-aching work.

Consider, then, the task Adam Cunnington has each year. Based at Gedney Dyke, near Spalding, Lincs, he has to harvest 10ha (25 acres) of the crop.

After successive years of employing gangs of pickers to work the whole area each day, Mr Cunnington has discovered a more mechanically based system. This year he has been using an Italian-sourced machine that allows the picker to travel rows and pick the asparagus as he passes over it.

The Bagioni harvester is an electrically powered machine with wheels that straddle the asparagus bed. The operator, who sits immediately above the crop in the centre, steers and controls its forward speed with pedals. Picked spears are placed in boxes on each side of the operator.

When fully charged, the harvester can operate for up to eight hours.

"Our previous system of having up to six people picking behind a tractor-mounted gantry was totally inefficient," says Mr Cunnington. "For a start, the unit needed a tractor driver who contributed nothing at all to the volume of crop picked. And then there was the point that the speed of the whole operation was geared to the ability of the slowest picker. If the tractor went too fast, spears were left in the ground and were wasted."

He was also not too enamoured with having to hire in gangs of workers, some of whom he says were far from efficient. Hence the introduction of the Bagioni machines which he discovered during a visit to Italys Eima agricultural show.

"I negotiated with the company to become its UK importer," he says, "and the first machines were delivered earlier this year. The first thing to arrange was the raising of the chassis by about 12cm so that it could work in raised beds. In Italy, crops are grown on the flat."

This years harvest has seen just three machines being used, with the farms regular labour being employed.

"We have been able to cover the 25 acres comfortably for the whole season," says Mr Cunnington. "The crop has not been that lush, but this means the machines have further to travel between spears – at a speed which would be unsustainable for someone working on foot."

Each of the Bagioni harvesters costs about £3000 – which Mr Cunnington believes is recoupable when the reduced labour bill and increased harvesting efficiency is taken into account.

He also believes the machines could be useful for other "low-ground" manual operations.

"I have sold one machine to a person who uses it to harvest chives and another to a Yorks-based farmer for harvesting strawberries," he says. "I dont see any reason why they could not be used for transplanting vegetables, seedlings or a host of other such operations. The point to note is that the operator is also the driver – there is not an expensive tractor driver sitting down at the front doing next to nothing." &#42