Semi-mechanical broccoli harvester

The prototype of a trailed semi-mechanical broccoli harvester could be seen in action at Syngenta’s annual international Dutch Open Days, writes Steven Vale.

The idea is the brainchild of Syngenta’s crop portfolio manager for brassicas in Northern and Central Europe, Zenon Malek. After drawing several sketches, he got a local engineering company to make the prototype. Finished earlier this year, and dubbed as the Easy Broq harvester, following an initial field test in summer broccoli in Poland, the Dutch event was the machine’s second outing.

Hydraulically-powered, with stainless steel used for much of the construction, potential forward speed and capacity have yet to be determined, but what we can confirm is that broccoli heads are still cut from the plant by hand. From then on everything is done mechanically, and the heads are transported along a hydraulically-powered conveyor to a pair of hydraulically-powered cutting discs. Key to the technique are the open-headed varieties developed by Syngenta, which result in individual florets once the stalk is severed.

These travel up through the machine and onto a picking table, before falling into a box at the rear of the machine. Eight staff are needed – four to cut the broccoli; two on the picking table; one to replace the boxes and one on the harvester tractor.

Mr Malek reckons 15 people would normally be required to achieve the same output, and it is the difficulty in finding the necessary staff that is behind the development of the Easy Broq. “Broccoli growers are finding it increasingly difficult to find people prepared to work in the fields in Poland,” he says. “We have to find new ways to reduce our dependence on manual labour.”

Syngenta has several new varieties suitable for semi-mechanical harvesting, some of which are capable of producing yields of up to 10t/ha. At their Dutch Open Days, they were highlighting two varieties for the concept – MF049 and Monflor. Described as similar, although MF049 is slightly later to mature, the key feature of both is the more open head structure. “What I liked with the demonstration is that it shows we now have products in Monflor and MF049 that are suitable for harvesting by the machine,” says Syngenta technical seeds specialist Nigel Kingston. “This ensures efficient use of labour and improves output while not compromising on product quality.”

Mr Malek describes the harvester as a multi-floret system, which can provide product for a number of different uses. This includes supplying individual florets for both fresh and frozen markets. A big plus in favour of the technique for the processing industry are the lack of any yellow borders to traditional florets, when heads fall apart. It may also be possible to pack individual heads for consumers to slice through the stalks at home. “We call it a one cut broccoli,” he says, “and the stems on the two varieties also have a much sweeter taste than normal.”

The prototype recently completed a third job in Poland, where it tackled a 4ha field. The plan this winter is to make a few final tweaks ahead of a commercial launch next year, and it is just possible visitors may be able to see the finished result in action at Syngenta’s 2017 Dutch Open Days.

Prices have yet to be announced but are expected to be somewhere in the region of €10,000-€12,000. When it does go on sale the Easy Broq will be available with the option of a second conveyor on the opposite side of the machine. While slightly more expensive, this will double the output.