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Delivering no. 85: grape harvesting at its best.

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As summer grows shorter, vineyard owners and the engineering staff at Ag Industrial Manufacturing (AIM) in Lodi, Calif., keep watch on thousands of acres in the state's northern San Joaquin County. AIM faces a tight deadline to complete its 85th grape harvester and bring in a client's crop without delay or disaster. The pace picks up as the grape leaves turn brown at the edges, a sign that harvest time is approaching.

For the local agricultural economy, no machine is more important than the grape harvester. With 100-plus growers cultivating more than 100,000 acres worth roughly $400 million, most of the region's grapes are harvested using machines created at AIM's sprawling manufacturing complex. Without the speed, capacity, and efficiency of these modern harvesters, growers would lose money, and grapes would rot on the ground.

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Grape harvesters have to be rugged enough to work long hours in the vineyard, yet precise enough to remove ripe fruit from the vines without crushing it or damaging the vines. Each custom-made harvester costs more than a Lamborghini and must be delivered on time. Making the delivery date represents the difference between a smooth harvest and major losses for the grower.

The key players

AIM's founders, ASABE Fellow Paul Burkner, his partner ASABE Fellow Claude Brown, and Burkner's brother Charlie, have spent more than three decades perfecting machines that can do the day's work of a dozen men in just a few hours. AIM has a dedicated staff of more than 30, and most are long-time employees, with widely varied skills, who operate and maintain the company's machines. And every year there is more innovation, more fine-tuning, and more pressure to produce the machines that have become the international leader in grape harvesting.

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AIM began in 1979, when Burkner and Brown set up a business to repair parts, build custom parts, and sell out-the-door steel. After scraping together enough money to purchase two grape harvesters--machines that were so unusual at the time that few growers could afford them--Burkner and Brown began harvesting grapes for hire. Their first employee was Tommy Homer, who had moved to California from Arkansas right after high school. Homer has now been AIM's foreman for 35 years. In the early days of the company, Homer worked double shifts while Burkner and Brown slept in their trucks at clients' vineyards to troubleshoot the third-party harvesters. There were always problems with those machines. They didn't hold up over time, and they needed constant in-field modifications. Burkner and Brown knew they could do better. They decided to build their own grape harvester.

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Brown had graduated from San Joaquin Delta College and took courses at UC Davis. As a youngster, he worked on machines--building, fixing, and improving. As a teen, he supervised a crew doing commercial electrical work, once running wire and conduit up a soaring TV tower in the San Francisco Bay area. He later worked for Randtron--a conglomerate of manufacturing companies based in Menlo Park, Calif.--and his mechanical skills led him to Randtron's Holtz Rubber Co., in Lodi, Calif., where he worked his way up to vice president for manufacturing.

When Randtron was sold, Brown and Burkner set up their new business, focused on designing and building grape harvesting machines. Their reputations for ingenuity, innovation, and determination preceded them.

Burkner had an ag engineering degree from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, did graduate work at the University of Hawaii, and worked with the USDA building date, onion, and citrus harvesters. But grapes were another story. "Back then, grape harvesting machines were designed by people who didn't use them," Burkner says. "It wasn't a big market, but it was a tough, very specialized market that was not being satisfied."

Equipment manufacturer Food Machinery Corporation (FMC) developed a prototype for a fruit shaker for automated grape harvesting in the 1970s, and AIM helped with the design. Burkner attached the new picking head to a commercial harvester and began pitching mechanical grape harvesting to area growers. A collaboration was born, but it didn't last. FMC left the ag equipment market in the mid-1980s.

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"We were trying to make a buck and survive," Burkner says of AIM's early days. Before mechanical harvesting became an industry standard, area growers viewed it with skepticism. "Let me put it to you this way," he says, "The machines were pretty crude. Not too many growers were willing to risk having a machine destroy their vines."

Finally, in 1990, Brown and Burkner unveiled AIM's own prototype--their first grape harvester. It had a voracious appetite for grapes, and it worked reliably. Burkner credits several local growers for being forward thinking at the time, and for being willing to try mechanical harvesting--even though harvesting just 80 acres of grapes took nearly two months. By comparison, today's machines harvest 80 acres in less than four days of eight-hour shifts.

85 and counting

AIM's 85th grape harvester (shown on the cover) is a direct descendant of that first machine. Harvester No. 85 has a large square frame with the driver's seat on top. The machine straddles a row of grapevines and holds the vines with its two long Soft-Touch arms--a unique feature of AIM harvesters. The arms oscillate at 350 rpm until the fruit is "rigorously but gently" shaken loose. Two conveyor belts, on either side of the vines, move the grapes toward the rear of the machine, where a vertical belt carries the fruit upward. The grapes travel through a blower, which removes leaves, bits of vine, and insects. On top of the machine, the grapes enter a cross conveyor and pass through a sorting station, where two workers pick out damaged grapes and any debris missed by the blower.

Perfect grapes pour into a gondola, towed at the side of the harvester, which holds about six tons of fruit. That's the equivalent of about 5,000 bottles of wine.

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Ready to roll

The vineyard owner calls to say that the grapes cannot wait: "We have to pick tonight." Harvesting happens at night to protect the grapes from the daytime heat. Looking pristine and eager, AIM harvester No. 85 rolls down the highway and into the vineyard.

As the sun goes down, No. 85 roars into action. Tractors tow gondolas back and forth and follow the harvester up and down the rows. After the harvester passes, only bare stems--called rachis--are left on the vines. Dust and debris fly while grapes swirl along the conveyor belts and then settle into the gondolas.

The harvester is automated, but it's still tricky work. "There's always something," says Brown, as he and Burkner watch in the darkness. For now, all is well. Their new baby is bringing the harvest in on time.

One good idea leads to another

Burkner is credited with developing the grape gondolas, which transport the grapes from the harvester to trucks parked at the vineyard edges. A hydraulic extension lifts the gondola's payload into the truck's tank. "The big dump," says Burkner with a chuckle. AIM's grape gondola continues to be one of the industry's largest sellers, mostly in California and Oregon.

Continuous R&D has led to constant innovations, such as the gondola's hydraulic system, as well as the Soft Touch system, for which Burkner holds a U.S. patent, that shakes grapes onto the conveyor belts with a continuous, fluid motion for minimal crop damage.

As lucrative as grape harvesters proved to be, Burkner realized that harvesting was only two months of the year. "So we looked at other products," he says. One idea naturally led to another.

In addition to grape harvesters, AIM has produced harvesters for radishes, chrysanthemums, coffee, guayule, patchouli, and Dichondra seed, as well as tomato vine diverters, vineyard pre-pruners, vine trimmers, brush rakes, tractor saddle tanks, chemical applicators, twin-bin picking trailers, hydraulic pruning shears, a highway barrier mover, a steam leaf removal machine, and pieces of custom equipment-- some of which are "strictly confidential."

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But ideas take time. Brown and Burkner often sift through several solutions to an engineering problem. "Sometimes you have compelling ideas that don't make good business sense," says Burkner. "You have to make payroll and pay taxes, too."

One thing doesn't change: all AIM harvesters are painted green. Why green? E&J Gallo was AIM's first customer and requested a specific shade of green to match the company's truck fleet. AIM's harvesters are still painted green to honor that first sale. Brown and Burkner will use another color at a client's request, but only reluctantly. One harvester was painted white, and scoffingly dubbed "The Albino." Another was painted blue. "Enough of that," says Burkner.

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Sue Mitrovich, Managing Editor, Resource, St. Joseph, Mich., USA; mitro@asabe.org; Sara Jane Pohlman, "Lodi Living" Editor, Lodi News-Sentinel, sarap@lodinews.com, contributed to this article.

Mitrovich and Pohlman have both taken a night ride on a grape harvester and highly recommend it. To climb aboard visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRV_LspLeA&feature=youtu.be and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVzNqj8Tafk.
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Author:Mitrovich, Sue
Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Nov 1, 2015
Words:1520
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