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Horticulture

Automated crop thinning improves crop quality and profits

More is not always better.

Producers of apples, peaches, cherries, and other deciduous fruit tree specialty crops are well acquainted with this concept, as the case with apples shows: It takes only 10 percent of a tree’s fruit to produce a profitable crop. If too much fruit is left on a tree, the results can be economically disastrous—all of that season’s fruit turns out extremely small and next year the tree will not produce enough fruit to turn a profit.

Currently, the only truly reliable strategy for removing the excess fruit is hand-thinning, which can cost up to $1,120 per acre.   

The question for growers is how can they thin their crops to reach the most profitable level? A team of researchers led by Penn State University is using funds provided by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Specialty Crop Research Initiative to find out.

The team of faculty and industry members from Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington, and California developed an automated system for fruit thinning that uses tractor-mounted or handheld string thinners; they have been able to reduce the labor requirement by 50 percent.  The process also resulted in better fruit quality and increased yield, which led to an average net economic increase of $694 per acre in peaches. 

Nationally, this technology could have a total economic benefit to peach growers of $82.5 million per year and reduce their labor needs by 5.9 million hours. Based on a report published by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, this could have a positive impact on rural economies of $181.5 million per year.

The project team is expanding the program into other deciduous crops (apple, cherry, and plum) with similar results. If adoption is widespread across all potential crops, growers can realize increased economic output of over $440 million per year, which will translate to a positive economic impact on rural economies of almost $1 billion per year.

 

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