Sucking It Up: New Prototype Machine Aims to Simplify Chestnut Harvesting

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Dan Guyer, biosystems and agricultural engineering scientist, , is working to design a prototype chestnut harvesting unit. (view larger image)

Michigan’s young chestnut industry continues to grow by leaps and bounds—this year’s crop is the largest in the industry’s short history. Growers may soon have another reason to celebrate, thanks to efforts by an MAES biosystems and agricultural engineering researcher who is evaluating various approaches for a semiautomated harvesting machine.

Edible chestnuts may be a profitable commodity, but harvesting the sweet nut by hand is backbreaking work. Dan Guyer, MAES biosystems and agricultural engineering scientist, is collaborating with Whoa Seug Kang, professor of agricultural engineering on sabbatical from Kangwon National University in South Korea, to design a prototype of a harvesting unit to simplify and expedite the harvesting process.

Kang developed the concept for the harvesting machine. He reasoned that, to thrive and prosper, the burgeoning industry needed an affordable small- to medium-sized harvesting machine that could easily maneuver between trees. The prototype is partially modeled after larger, more expensive European machines.

In the past, not enough chestnuts were grown in the Midwest to warrant investigating less labor-intensive harvesting systems. But as hopes rise that the market will become increasingly profitable, interest in putting in orchards is growing.

“As the trees mature and reach full production capacity, there will be a greater need for modern harvesting equipment, but purchasing the larger European system is cost-prohibitive, at least for now,” Guyer said. “Having an efficient and affordable device to expedite the harvesting process is critical as the state’s chestnut industry continues to grow.”

The prototype sucks up the nuts and their spiky burrs off of the ground and puts them into crates. The machine roughly resembles a 5-foot cube and is about one-third the size of its European counterpart.

The next step is to devise a way for the harvester to separate the nuts from everything else the machine picks up. Like a vacuum cleaner, the machine picks up everything, including soil, leaves, sticks and the chestnuts’ burr casings. Guyer and Kang are working on separation techniques based on the density of the nuts.

The project was funded by Project GREEEN, Michigan’s plant agriculture initiative.

Work on the chestnut harvester evolved from an integrated research and outreach effort initiated several years ago by MAES plant pathologist Dennis Fulbright to reintroduce the edible chestnut crop to Michigan and develop a market in the state.

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