In West Michigan, it's apple harvest time. That may conjure up images of picturesque orchards and old-fashioned fun: growers harvesting apples and then selecting them by hand.
Robotic arms, computer vision and high-resolution photography are helping Michigan growers wash, sort and package apples at top speeds in the business — think 2,000 apples per minute.
With this modern technology, farmers are expanding production and getting Galas and Ginger Golds from Michigan orchards to grocery stores faster and more cheaply.
That's especially important during bumper crop years like 2013, when Michigan apple growers are expected to bring in a potentially record-setting 30 million bushels.
Rob Steffens, an apple grower on West Michigan's fertile "fruit ridge," has about 280 acres of orchards northwest of Grand Rapids. He packs 800 to a 1,000 apple trees into each acre, which is about three times as many trees as his father grew on the land.
With so many new trees, Steffens and other Michigan growers needed a way to process all those extra apples faster and more cheaply.
So Steffens pooled his resources with six other farmers to build a $7 million apple packing plant. It's where his apples are sorted, washed, waxed and readied for shipping to grocery stores.
Wooden crates with "Steffens" stamped on them stack up against one wall in the warehouse. A machine picks up the crates and dumps the apples onto a sort of water conveyor belt. The three-foot-wide river of bobbing apples moves quickly, as a machine sorts the fruit.
Then the apples go through a tunnel filled with flashing lights.
"Really, this is the brains of that," Steffens says, as he points to the tunnel. "This takes a picture of each apple — I think it's between 25 and 29 times a second."
The computer then forms a 3D model of each apple so it can figure out the fruit's size, color and quality. The apples are sorted by weight and color in a fraction of a second. Bruised or misshapen apples are rejected.
"See, and it's kicking out fruit like this," Steffens says as he points to a blemish no bigger than a dime on the skin of one of the rejected apples.
The high-tech machine means the growers can process and pack way more fruit with the same amount of workers. On a typical day, the machine can scan almost 2,000 apples a minute.
"It's processing at an astonishing rate," says horticulturist Randy Beaudry, at Michigan State University.
But this new technology, he says, is what Michigan apple growers need to compete with other states.
"If, for instance, a large box store says, 'OK, we want fruit that are between 2.5 and 2.75 inches.' And they want them 80 percent red with coloration. And they want zero defects — Michigan growers can get that fruit," he says. "And they can do it within a few hours time."
Each year, Michigan is typically only behind Washington and New York state in terms of apple bushels. That has a lot to do with good weather and luck. But it's also because growers have been changing their orchards. Growers have been ripping out older, taller apple trees and replacing them with smaller ones, Beaudry says.
"The trees are shorter. They're closer together," he says. "We create what we call fruiting walls. That's a relatively recent innovation, but it's part of a long-term trend to reduce the size of apple trees, so that they're harvested more easily and more efficiently. So we don't need as much labor."
More and more technology is needed to move labor-intensive agricultural products like apples efficiently to market, Beaudry says.
Fortunately for us, the end result still tastes like an old-fashioned Michigan apple in October.
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For anyone who loves a good apple, October is peak season. Growers in west Michigan are near the height of their apple harvest. This may conjure images of picturesque orchards and old-fashioned fun for some. But modern technologies are playing a bigger role in the business side of the apple harvest.
Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith visited a packing plant to see first hand how technology help apples go from Michigan farms to grocery stores across the country.
LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: Right now it's crunch time for growers like Rob Steffens. He's got 280 acres of apple trees in west Michigan's fertile fruit ridge northwest of Grand Rapids. Steffens walks through a block of stubby Fuji apple trees, the branches are just full of fruit.
ROB STEFFENS: This block here is really going to pick heavy this year. I mean, I don't know if you can see here, Lindsey, this just gorgeous sized fruit on here.
SMITH: Steffens palms a Fuji apple nearly the size of a softball. It's not just the size and color he's impressed with, but the taste, too. Michigan apple growers are expected to bring in a potentially record setting 30 million bushels this year. That has a lot to do with good weather and luck. But it's also because growers have been changing their orchards.
Randy Beaudry studies apples after they're harvested at Michigan State University. He says growers have been ripping out older, taller apple trees and replacing them.
RANDY BEAUDRY: So the trees are shorter, they're closer together. We create what are called fruiting walls, this is a relatively recent innovation, but it's part of a long term trend to reduce the size of apple trees so that they're harvested more easily and more efficiently so we don't need as much labor.
SMITH: Steffens says he's got about 800 to 1,000 apple trees per acre, but when his father ran the orchard, there was only about one-third the trees packed in now. With so many new trees, growers on Michigan's fruit ridge are producing more apples. Technology is helping process the extra apples faster.
Rob Steffens leads the way into a packing plant just a couple of miles away. This is where his apples are sorted, washed, waxed and packaged. He and six other growers nearby went in on this roughly $7 million packaging plant. It opened this summer. Wooden crates with Steffens stamped on the side tower against one wall.
A machine picks up the crates and dumps the apples onto a sort of water conveyor belt. The three-foot wide river of bobbing apples moves quickly as a machine sorts them. Each apple is sorted by weight and color in a fraction of a second. Bruised or misshapen apples are rejected.
STEFFENS: See, it's kicking out fruit like this. It's got a little of that on it.
SMITH: Steffens points out a blemish no bigger than a dime on the skin of one of the rejected apples. The hi-tech machine means that growers can process and pack way more fruit with the same amount of workers. The day I visit, it was scanning almost 2,000 apples a minute.
BEAUDRY: I know, I know. It's processing at an astonishing rate.
SMITH: Again, Michigan State's Randy Beaudry, but he says this new technology is what Michigan apple growers need to compete.
BEAUDRY: If, for instance, a large box store says OK, we want fruit that are between 2 and one-half inches and two and three-quarter inches, OK, they can get that fruit.
SMITH: Beaudry says more and more technology is needed to efficiently move labor intensive agricultural products like apples to market. Fortunately for us, the end result still tastes like an old fashioned Michigan apple in October. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.