Monday, June 14, 2010

Inventing and Marketing a Selective Vegetable Harvester – An Asparagus Harvester

I’ve spent the last week or so sprucing up my asparagus harvester web site. The site,, is to let asparagus growers know that there is such a thing as an asparagus harvester that selectively harvests only the ripe spears.

I feel that the machine is ready for market, but since I don’t have a machine, just the blue prints, it’s hard to get someone to buy one. Not to mention there are no asparagus harvesters of any kind anywhere harvesting any ones crop. We cut up our last prototype for scrap a couple of years ago and unless someone orders a harvester we don’t have the money to build a new one. Oh well. It will happen.

That of course makes it even more difficult to market. No one wants to be the first one to use a machine.

The reason I’ve been working on the website is that I just finished re-designing my experimental selective asparagus harvester. Most of the emails I get from interested growers are individuals with fairly small acreage. I decided to take a close look at the economics involved with an eye toward a machine for small growers.

One problem with machine harvesting asparagus when compared with other crops is the fact that the asparagus field has to be harvested every day… the same plot of asparagus every day. With a tomato harvester once you harvest a field you are done and can move on to the next field. Same with grapes and most other machine harvested crops.

If you have a machine that will do 20 acres a day, in 10 days you can do 200 acres. With the asparagus harvester if you have a machine that will do 20 acres a day, that’s it! That is all it will ever do.

So if you have a large operation you will need many machines. These baby’s aren’t cheap either… mine will sell for $125,000 each.

Another problem with a selective asparagus harvester is the percentage of the crop that the machine will successfully harvest. The spears all have to be at least 9 inches long, straight, with no hooks, bruises, scrapes, or other damage, and have nice tight bracts. The machine can only cut the ripe ones, the ones over 9 inches long. It must leave the shorter ones that will be ready for harvest the next day or two.

At this point no one has ever sustained to my knowledge even 70 percent recovery. It’s a tough crop to harvest. The asparagus is tender and easily damaged and tends to grow in little clumps which makes it hard to cut a ripe spear without damaging a shorter one next to it.

The stuff grows like a weed too. If you miss a day of harvest due to a machine breakdown you are in deep trouble. The next day the spears you should have harvested will be too long and most will not be marketable. You typically have to hire a crew to go in and cut down all the tall spears. A machine might take a couple of passes if the ripe spear density is too high for the machine to handle.

Anyway, what it boils down to is that to make the machine economically viable you simply need to run it as much as possible. Run it 24 hours a day. The single biggest influence on the cost of harvesting the asparagus with a machine is the labor of the driver and sorter. The second largest expense is paying for the machine.

Because the labor is the most expensive aspect even with machine harvesting, one would want to have the machine do as many acres a day as possible. If you are already running the machine 24 hours a day then you have two more options… make the machine go faster and either make the rows further apart or harvest more rows at once.

That doesn’t do a lot for the small grower. If you run the machine 24 hours a day, you have 48” row spacings, and you harvest at 2 miles per hour, then the machine will do about 75 acres a day.

I decided to take a good long look at my design and really try to get the price down as low as possible and see what I could do to increase the harvesting speed. I also decided not to even offer 1, 2, or 3 row harvesters for sale. They just don’t make economic sense.

So I’ve re-designed the machine with an eye toward increasing the harvesting speed and getting the cost down. I’ve spruced up the website. Now I will sit and wait for a nibble. It’s kind of like fishing. I’ve had lots of nibbles, and one solid bite, but the hook came out and I lost that one. So I have improved the bait.

If my plans turn out, a selective asparagus harvester will revolutionize the asparagus industry the way the tomato harvester changed the tomato industry. It will just take one customer making a profit to open the floodgates. There just aren’t that many asparagus growers on the planet. Word will get out quickly.

My moto: No Spear Left Behind!