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.