Friday, December 18, 2009

Inventions and Inventors – More Asparagus Harvester Problems

Inventions and Inventors – More Asparagus Harvester Problems

Continuing my asparagus harvester invention story…

One of the significant problems we had while trying to develop our prototype asparagus harvester was gaining access to asparagus fields for testing.

There is really no substitute for an asparagus field to test our prototypes on. We’ve devised a number of substitutes over the years, but all suffer from problems. We at times have used blocks of clay with all sorts of stuff stuck into the clay to substitute for spears… plastic tubing, sticks, rubber hose, tulles, and even asparagus spears from the grocery store. We rigged up conveyor belts under the machine with rubber studs sticking up. We even dragged it out to my farm and put tulles into the ground to simulate spears.

But in the end, is just extremely difficult to simulate simultaneously the delicate nature of the spears, the clumping and randomness of the spears, the leaning, the loads presented to the blades by the soil consistency, penetrability of the soil, the ability of blades to cut through spears, variations in bed height etc.

So for about six to eight weeks a year we have the opportunity to run the prototype asparagus harvester on a real asparagus field… if we could find one. It seems that asparagus growers have a couple of problems with testing machines on their fields. First, they earn their money from the asparagus crop, so if your machine doesn’t work well the farmer looses money, and second, it used to upset the crews that picked the asparagus.

There were a few years that worked out, when we would find a farmer that would allow us to cut a couple of rows on the edge of his field. One year a farmer told us we could have an acre well in advance of the season. One week after we got the harvester into his field he changed his mind and tossed us out. Not much testing done that year.

Another time the president of the asparagus growers association told us he would provide us with several acres the next season. When the season arrived he kept putting us off and finally told us he couldn’t find us any acreage. Great.

Part of the problem was that the asparagus growers did not really want to see mechanization come to the asparagus industry. I remember one grower who told me that he hoped that it would be a very expensive machine. The growers were making great money and were afraid mechanization would attract more growers and the increase volume would lower prices.

Now days it’s different. The much lower production costs of our foreign competitors has nearly wiped out the asparagus industry, and if mechanization doesn’t come along soon there will be nothing left. We will get all of our asparagus from Peru and Mexico.

After we hooked up with Washington State University things were different. The University paid farmers for the seasons crop, and any crop we harvested we turned over to the farmer every day anyway. The grower made out like a bandit.

The farmers are also much more interested in mechanical harvesting. The need to find a way to compete with the cheap imports and mechanization is really their only hope. So now they are rooting for us… and if we pay them enough they will let us experiment with our selective mechanical asparagus harvester on their farm.

To be continued…