Specialty Crop Innovations

Research and Extension Programming to Increase Specialty Crop Precision and Efficiency

If you have any questions or comments regarding the information in this report, please contact: Tara Baugher ( or 717-334-6271)

Historically, growing fruit in Pennsylvania and the surrounding Mid-Atlantic region was a profitable, rewarding agricultural pursuit. However, in the late 90s increased competition (domestic and global), higher costs, poor returns, and competing land uses put significant strains on this once strong industry.

Labor for orchard operations is a major focus of discussion among fruit growers. Many cultural practices and pest control methods utilized in the past require abundant labor resources to be profitable, and these no longer exist in today’s agricultural community.

Hand thinning of fruit is among the most labor-intensive orchard practices and consequently contributes significantly to fruit production costs. Research on mechanical string or drum shaker thinners demonstrated that these methods reduce the hand thinning requirement in crop load management programs.

Mobile orchard platforms are a technology utilized in European orchards that responded to a mid-60s apple marketing crisis by planting high density systems with tall, narrow canopies (Oberhofer, 2004; Mitham, 2005).

Labor costs associated with fruit harvest are roughly 40% of an orchard enterprise annual budget. For this reason, a national specialty crop engineering solutions task force identified harvest mechanization and automation as a research priority (Engineering Solutions for Specialty Crop Challenges Proceedings, 2007).

Sensor and imaging technologies, along with weather modeling, are being investigated for applications in intensive orchard systems.

The application of pesticides to perennial cropping systems, although very necessary for pest control, gives rise to many concerns including inaccurate application, which can lead to high food residues, food safety issues, air and water pollution, non-target effects and poor pest control.

There are two driving forces to reduce labor inputs: cost and risk associated with a limited supply of labor. A USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative project was initiated in 2012 to develop innovative technologies for automating pruning on apple trees.