Homemade Machine Speeds Strawberry Harvest

6/21/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. — Strawberry season is a blip on the calendar, a few weeks in June when produce auctions and roadside stands burgeon with fresh, red berries.

For Delton Zimmerman, it is also the time to bring out the bright orange picking machine. He built the machine a few winters ago to assist with the harvest on the farm’s acre and a half of strawberries.

This year marked the third berry harvest for Zimmerman and his wife Ruth Ann Zimmerman on the 45-acre farm they rent from his father in New Holland, Pa.

Similar to and inspired by commercially available one- or two-row picking machines, Zimmerman’s three-row machine is larger than many actually on the market.

Powered by a Kipor generator and a 5-mph motor, the machine allows three workers to lie down and pick as the row passes by underneath them.

“I’m glad for the machine, and so are the people that help us,” who are mostly neighbors and relatives, Delton Zimmerman said.

Each picker lies down with a padded platform for the head, chest and feet. The supports can be adjusted for people with shorter arms, and the two platforms on either side can be folded up when not in use.

The pickers face toward the back of the machine to make it easier to see the berries. The picking boxes sit on brackets hanging from the head supports. The head supports even have lights underneath.

The driver, who is often Zimmerman’s young nephew Kyle Martin, directs the machine with a switch. The driver also swaps out full berry boxes for empty ones, and picks out bad berries.

With the price of the generator excluded, Zimmerman estimates he built the machine for the price of a commercial one-row picking machines.

Zimmerman’s machine has used wheels, a transmission from a Cub Cadet riding mower, and an axle from a reel mower. It has a maximum speed of only 3 mph, but Zimmerman said he chose the generator because it is relatively quiet.

Despite the low power, the machine has not gotten stuck yet, a fact Zimmerman attributes to the size of the wheels. “We can get through some sloppy conditions,” he said.

It should be no surprise that Zimmerman designed and built the picking machine. He assembled 200 inoculant applicators this winter for DuPont Pioneer. He also renovated a former hog barn on the property for broilers and plans to renovate the second one this summer.

The birds go to live markets in New York City and New Jersey, he said.

The strawberries and building work are just part of the diversification on the farm, which Delton and Ruth Ann Zimmerman began renting three years ago.

Most of the 45 acres are dedicated to corn and soybeans, but produce is where the Zimmermans want to make their living. In addition to strawberries, they grow raspberries, tomatoes and asparagus.

Delton Zimmerman had a full-time, off-farm job, but he decided to work on the farm to be around his wife and their three sons. “I always wanted to be on the farm,” he said.

The farm is somewhat small compared to others in the county, but “it’s big enough to do produce anyhow,” Zimmerman said.

The farm sells some strawberries at a farm stand, but not a lot. “It seems like this road isn’t a very heavy-traveled road,” he said.

He also sells raspberries and strawberries at the nearby Red Run Campground on the weekend. Many of the customers there come from urban areas and are having a vacation in the country, he said.

Most of the strawberries go to Weaverland Produce Auction, Zimmerman said.

This year Zimmerman grew the Chandler, Camarosa and Albion berry varieties. In the fall, he plans to plant the Sweet Charlie strawberries to try to capture the early market.

Zimmerman plants all of the strawberries under plastic in ridges. “Seems weeds are always a challenge,” and the plastic helps with that, he said.

He had been keeping his plantings from one year to the next. This year, “I decided that’s it,” Zimmerman said. “There’s too much disease pressure.”

With the cost and time of spraying, it was not worth it to carry the plants over for a second year. The berry size drops off after the first year too, Zimmerman said.

If he takes the strawberries out right away, he will disc down the raised strawberry rows and plant soybeans on the evened-out field.

After that, some 12,000 strawberry plants for next year will go in at the end of August or beginning of September, he said.

The Zimmermans usually pick the evening before the auction or the morning of to avoid storing the berries for long periods of time.

Picking every other day, as the Zimmermans do, sometimes means weekend storage, though.

When that is necessary, Zimmerman just leaves the berries in a room with the air conditioner turned up high.

“That seems to do a pretty fair job,” Zimmerman said. “It’s better than leaving them at room temperature.”

While the farm has produced some good strawberries this year, Zimmerman said his 2013 crop was better.

This year, the tarnished plant bug caused damage that ruined half his crop. By the time he recognized the problem and had a Penn State scientist identify the bug, it was too late.

Many of the berries were undersized and had catfacing, or misshapenness with too many seeds, he said.

Zimmerman finished picking at the beginning of the week, though without the tarnished plant bug he would still be picking, he said.

He also watches out for the sap beetle, a tiny black pest insect that eats holes in the fruit.

Last year, by contrast, Zimmerman escaped the mid-May frost that hurt a lot of fruit growers. When he saw that a frost was forecast, he debated buying row cover and eventually did.

Zimmerman said his cold-frame tomatoes are easier to grow than strawberries and raspberries. “There (in the cold frame) you can control your climate a lot more,” he said.

Berries are very sensitive to the cold and heat. On a 90-degree day like Tuesday, the berries can quickly turn overripe and get soft.

Picking tomatoes can also be a little less labor-intensive than berry picking, he said.

As with most things in farming, harvesting good strawberries comes down to timing and weather.

“(Strawberries) likes nice weather just like we do,” Zimmerman said.


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8/27/2014 | Last Updated: 7:01 PM