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New tool reduces stem borer damage in apple harvest and storage

Skin damage on an apple caused by the stalks of other apples can severely reduce a grower’s profit margin. “About 8 to 10% is about the normal level of damage in crates of apples brought from the orchard to storage,” said Leighton Rice, developer of Steampunk. He has seen figures as high as 20%.

Puncture damage leads to direct loss of quality and increases the pressure of secondary storage problems. This prompted Rice to look for a solution. Rice knows from his own experience in the orchard how difficult it is to grow good apples and make a profit at the same time. When he arrived at the packing station of the family-owned rice fruit company. Arriving at work, he was shocked to see the extent of the damage the stinging rods were doing.

“I think the stem length of an apple should be relatively easy to control.” For example, he began working on a tool to combat the problem of puncture damage.

Why was steampunk invented?
Until now, hand clippers have been the only solution to stem damage, but they require only one hand to pick up the harvester. Penn State Extension conducted a study in 2014 that indicated a 33% loss in efficiency from lifting 330 kg per hour with two hands to 220 kg per hour. Rice began developing a semi-automated solution in 2016, which he named Punctilius.

“The first prototypes for that device were motorized and strapped to the wrist, but they didn’t give the desired result in the orchard,” he says. “It was a costly mistake, but I looked for a solution.” The result is a cutting device attached to the picker’s diaphragm and can be operated with both hands. StemPunk trims stems efficiently, easily and safely. “It’s also fun,” Rice says, “and it makes a sweet snapping sound every time you cut a stem.”

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Vocal punk

What are the benefits?
The main advantage of steampunk is that the harvester can pick up and cut with both hands. Tests show that a picker with steampunk can pick 265-285 kg of apples again, compared to 220 kg of apples with a hand cutter.

“This is undoubtedly a meaningful improvement. Even at the rate of 265 kg per hour, the harvester saves about 25 cents in direct harvesting costs each time he empties his bag into the box. At that rate the equipment pays for itself. Compared to a week ago, this hand “It’s just a calculation of the benefit in cutting, so avoiding skin damage has not yet been taken into account,” Rice said. In addition, the conical shape of the blades matches the shape of the stem cup to prevent external damage, which is a frequent problem when using hand clippers.

Are some species more susceptible to puncture damage than others?
Not all apples are equally susceptible to skin damage caused by stem piercing. The risk depends on the length, shape and orientation of the stems. All these factors are related to variety and type of fruit.

“The main bud usually produces a long stem, which carries a higher risk, but most growers prefer to keep that bud thin,” Rice said. Additionally, shell thickness and hardness are important variables. Varieties such as Fuji and Honeycrisp are thinner-skinned and more susceptible to damage than the thick-skinned Red Delicious. Many of the newer club varieties are based on Honeycrisp and are therefore thin-skinned. Cutting stems is even more important because of the potential for great gifts in these categories. “Anyway, all apple varieties benefit from stem cutting.”

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Where is StemPunk used?
StemPunk launched late in the 2021 season, but is already being used by pickers in several US states. In addition, this tool is used by farmers in Canada, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

“The demand is high,” he says, “almost too high. Many farmers are intrigued by this tool and its ability to speed up the harvest. Pickers are still a little resistant, and I understand that. It feels like an improvement. If the hand is cut, it’s I think it will be successful.”

Below is a video of StemPunk in action.

For more information:
Leighton Rice
Rice systems
[email protected]