Harvester aims for lighter touch with cabbages
By Andy Collings
THE fewer times vegetables are handled, the better condition they will be in when they arrive at the supermarket, says David Bowman of BFW Agricultural Engineers.
Based at Friskney near Boston, in the heart of Lincolnshires vegetable growing area, he probably knows more than most about vegetable harvesting machinery.
His company, which also holds a Renault franchise, specialises in the design and construction of equipment this type of intensive farming demands. One of his latest creations is a cabbage harvester which has the ability to trim, package, weigh and barcode the produce before it leaves the machine. In a limited number of operations, the cabbages are ready for the supermarket shelves.
Still to be tried out, the harvester is, says Mr Bowman, the result of discussion and consultation with growers who expressed a need for such a machine. Among those is Allan Clements of TH Clements, whose scale of operation can be judged from the fact that he operates 53 Renault tractors, three self-propelled Bateman sprayers and a fleet of articulated lorries.
It is at Mr Clements Bennington farm where the machine awaits its debut performance.
"Our main objective was to reduce the amount of handling, and potential crop damage," says Mr Bowman. "But we did not want to lose output, in fact we wanted to increase it."
Most existing harvesting methods call for a series of operations. A cutting team places cabbages into cradles which convey them to a collection area where they are stacked in boxes before being transported to a packaging house where several other operations result in the prepared product.
On Mr Bowmans machine, which is wrapped around a 83hp Renault 90-34, cutters place cabbages on to two vertical cup conveyors on either side of the tractor. These take the crop to a processing area at the rear of the machine.
The cabbages land on two conveyors where a team of four operators trim, weigh and package them before allowing them to exit the platform via a central conveyor to be packed in boxes on the trailer being towed behind.
"We have basically two harvesting and processing lines on one tractor," says Mr Bowman. "This in itself is an improvement on existing systems and one which should improve output."
All conveyors are driven hydraulically using the units pto-powered hydraulic system. The speed of each can be independently controlled and in the event of an overload an electronic sensing system will shut down each processing line until the blockage is cleared. Operator safety is also managed through a series of "panic" shut-down buttons placed at key points around the platform.
Power for the weighing and barcoding equipment is supplied by a petrol fuelled generator, the cost of suitable battery powered weighing equipment deemed to be prohibitive and unnecessary.
But what is needed is a specially modified pallet trailer to tow behind the unit. With the mounted processing unit extending rearwards from the rear of the tractor, a trailer with an extended drawbar is required to make connection with the pick-up hitch. Two-wheel trailers have been constructed to meet this requirement, each wheel having a stub axle to allow maximum crop clearance beneath the trailer.
While the new machine is now poised to tackle its first harvesting season – a season which should see Mr Clements cabbages reach the supermarkets in prime condition and in less time – Mr Bowman continues to have some reservations in the packaging department.
"Supermarkets can be fickle in the type of packaging they require. They can suddenly change their style which dictates that the harvester would have to instantly accommodate these changes."
That aside, if, as everyone involved predicts, the new harvester is a success, Mr Bowman will be looking to market it more widely.
"The vegetable harvesting machinery market can be bespoke. If someone wanted a similar machine to this, I reckon they would be looking at between £33,000 and £35,000." *