Machines a ‘game-changer’ for Tasmanian orchards needing fruit pickers

Picker Arisa Yoshida with the machine in Tasmania's Huon Valley.

Picker Arisa Yoshida with the machine in Tasmania's Huon Valley. Photo: ABC News/Fiona Breen

Apple picking has a long history in Tasmania and has typically been back-breaking work, but new conveyor belt technology is designed to take the pain out of it.

For Huon Valley apple picker, Arisa Yoshida, it has made her life easier.

“It’s very good, I used to carry the big bag but this machine takes all the apples for me, it’s so easy,” she said.

Ms Yoshida is working for Huon Valley organic apple grower Andrew Smith.

Coronavirus-imposed travel restrictions and a shortage of overseas workers pushed apple growers to adopt the new technology more quickly than anticipated.

When the pandemic hit and borders closed, Mr Smith did not have enough pickers.

So he ordered two of the spider-like apple-picking platforms, with a price tag of $150,000 each.

“It’s not brand-new technology, it’s been around for a while, but it’s certainly accelerated globally now,” he said.

New opportunities for female workforce

Set up with six conveyor belts and two movable platforms, the machines can travel up and down the rows with six pickers picking at different heights.

“There’s no real necessity for high-strength individuals to do this job anymore,” he said.

“I’m particularly excited about opening up the opportunity for a wider workforce that would be 50 or 60 to 40 [per cent] female versus male in what is a predominantly male-dominated workforce.”

Rachel Waters says the machinery has helped ease the physical load of picking. Photo: ABC News/Fiona Breen

Lead picker Rachael Waters has embraced the new technology.

“I think pretty much across the board everybody prefers not having a bag across their chest,” she said.

“It makes it a lot easier, and particularly for lightweight women – it’s quite painful when you’re carrying up to 20 kilos of apples on the front of you and having to climb ladders.”

Andrew Smith has since ordered two more machines, but global demand for the machinery has pushed the waiting time out by six months.

There are at least 14 of these apple-picking platforms across Tasmania.

The president of Fruit Growers Tasmania, Scott Price, said it was another tool for the industry.

“I’m not saying it’s the answer to all our problems, but it gives us the flexibility to utilise a lot more new labour  … that we probably haven’t utilised before,” Mr Price said.

There are also benefits for the quality of the fruit.

“Bruising basically disappears. Even the best apple picker will have some bruising in their fruit,” he said.

The machines are also a game-changer when it comes to pay; pickers have long been paid a piece rate, meaning their wage depends on how much they pick.

The faster they are, the more money they get.

These machines will see more pickers paid an hourly wage.

“It’s more equitable, I guess. It becomes up to us to drive efficiency and manage this correctly, because now we’re potentially on an hourly rate, as opposed to contract labour which is what we’ve been doing for the past  40 years,” Mr Smith said.

Bid to secure pay rates

Under the award, the average worker must be offered up to 15 per cent more per hour than the minimum wage.

The Australian Workers’ Union has lodged a submission to the Fair Work Commission seeking to amend the award to ensure a minimum payment for those paid piece rates.

But Mr Price said the technology did not spell the end of piece-rate payments.

“I hope not, I think there’s still a very great role for the piece rate,” he said.

“A lot of our pickers here now only work if they can earn more than the daily wage.

“I can fully understand why they want to put a floor in it.

“Everyone deserves a fair go and to be looked after, but the danger of taking the piece rate away completely will be there will be people that won’t want to do this work.”

Fruit Growers president Scott Price says workers will now be paid an hourly rate rather than as contract labour. Photo: ABC News/Fiona Breen

Possible price hike for produce

In the meantime, the cost of the technology will likely push up the price of apples.

“It means a lot more investment in this sort of equipment, which is high-value capital equipment,” Mr Price said.

Ultimately we are now going to test and market and see whether the market is willing to pay more for produce,” Mr Smith said.

Using the machinery outside of the apple-growing season to prune the trees will also make it more economically viable.

“The orchard will effectively start to get built around machines like this, so it is absolutely a game-changer,” Mr Smith said.

But he said these conveyor belts would not be the end of the line for the technological revolution at orchards.

“You’re going to see robots in the orchard here within 24 to 36 months in Tasmania, probably at this place or next door. It’s going to happen really, really quickly,” Mr Smith said.


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