I recently presented a summary of mechanical hop harvesters at the 2013 NEHA Hops Conference in Morrisville, NY. As I prepared that material I was struck by how far we’ve come since 2010. In just three years since our small team embarked upon the development of the UVM Mobile Hops Harvester, several independently designed mechanical harvesters have become available and several builds of the UVM type harvester have also been developed by others. These are summarized in the presentation file linked above including videos of some of them.
Does Mechanical Harvesting Pay?
I also thought it may be helpful to show the impact of mechanical harvesting on a small hop farm. The reality is that hand picking hops is only realistic early in the development of a hop farm and only at very small scales of production. It depends on the interest of the pickers and the community atmosphere that many growers develop around their young enterprises. However, it is unlikely that the hand picking can support larger volume production at current labor rates and the rate of harvest will also be slower than necessary for preserving maximum hop quality.
So how expensive is a mechanical harvester? And can it actually pay for itself? Let’s do the numbers.
Assume a machine cost of $20,000, assembled, installed and ready to go (actual costs for the available machines are included in the presentation file above). Let’s say that machine is capable of harvesting 60 bines per hour (a light load for most) and that each bine is yielding 1 dry pound of hops. Let’s also assume 1000 bines per acre, and a one acre yard. We’ll look at high volume scenarios later. The benefit of mechanical harvesting is labor savings, so we need to assume the base case is paid hand picking at a wage of $7.25 per hour and a rate of 1 dry pound per hour (about one bine). Let’s also note that the machine might require 4 people vs. the one person we’re comparing it to, so it has a higher “per hour” labor rate. We’ll also assume that the machine has a life of 20 years, over which it’s initial cost is spread (as though it is being depreciated like other assets).
We have to make one simplification to the calculation before proceeding. We need to assume a common gross profit prior to harvest. In other words, the cost of the yard structure, the rhizomes, water, nutrients, any pest and disease management, etc. is all the same between the two cases and allows for a gross profit of, say, $10 per dry pound. With all that laid out, we can summarize the case as shown in the following table.
|Density||1000||bines per acre|
|Plant yield||1||dry pound per bine|
|Gross profit prior to harvest||$10.00||per dry pound|
|Machine rate||60||bines per hour|
|Labor cost||$7.25||per hour|
|Hand picking rate||1||bines per hour|
|Machine harvest cost||$1.48||per dry pound|
|Hand picking cost||$7.25||per dry pound|
|Mechanical advantage||$5.77||per dry pound|
|Simple payback period|
Admittedly, we can argue over the assumptions presented here. A machine could cost more to build or buy than I have assumed. Someone may be able to hand pick much quicker than I have presented. The machine rate could (and probably will be) higher than assumed above. The gross profit of $10 per dry pound assumed may be more or less. But I think it is safe to say that mechanical harvesting can pay for itself and, perhaps as important, allows a certain scale and quality of production that isn’t supported by hand picking.