Strawberry season is good for cash flow but hard on our backs. Do you have any ideas to help with our picking efficiency and sore backs?
Lou in Barnardsville
We grow several types of fruit but no strawberries so far. We do lots of transplanting which raises similar problems. When we started years ago, Karen and I were the entire workforce so transplanting often took hours. I found I was speedy for about an hour, then my efficiency dropped off over the next several hours as sore muscles made themselves known.
Several years ago I wrote a piece on a tool that we cobbled together with two wheelbarrow tires and scrap wood from the barn. While it is focused on transplanting, I suspect it could be adapted to strawberry harvest. That article is here and the device is pictured below. The operator leans back on the sloping board with most of her weight on the wheels but one foot in each bed for balance. Transplant sites for two feet on either side are in easy reach. I transplanted a circle and then rolled forward to do the next circle of transplants. The fabric and working downhill make it fairly easy to roll, even on freshly tilled ground.
We have a crew of 4-5 now, so we usually finish transplanting in an hour or so. The machine usually sits in the packing shed. As I recall, the cost was about three hours in the shop and fifty dollars in parts.
Another article on ergonomics touches on stretching and a similar cart from the University of Wisconsin.
It features garden cart wheels that straddle the bed with a low seat and forward outrigger. The operator rolls it forward by rolling the two wheels with their hands. The authors estimate a cost of $150. The operator sits upright but is close to the beds. More details here.
I did a quick search of the web for related products. This one is electric powered with lights so you can pick all night long. The operator lies face down so they can also take a little nap in the middle of the night. It was reportedly about $3000 in 2011. Here are two links: one and two.
Lots of do-it-yourself options are on the web. The one below is a tricycle with stereo music and kitchen chair from Australia.
Another is a face down, electric-driven picker for $50 plus the time to make it.
Here is a face down pedal-powered version which looks fairly comfortable.
This one from Gowinta Farms in Australia is a sidesaddle bike style aid.
Several tractor-scale versions exist, some with conveyor belts. I assume they can be scaled down for a smaller crew. The two below have space for ten workers and also need a tractor driver.
Happy picking. Blueberry season starts shortly.
Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.