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Harvesting aid reaps strawberry rewards


A harvesting innovation introduced at Piñata Farms for the first time during winter had reaped rewards for labour management despite a challenging season for producers, general manager Roger Turner said.

Strawberry harvesting underway at Pinata Farms, Wamuran

Mr Turner said AgPick, a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) hand-held harvesting system developed and manufactured by Adelaide's Agricultural Picking Technology was introduced to support the company's decision to manage most of its own seasonal pickers this year.

Piñata Farms provided daily work for an average of 140 pickers at its Wamuran, Sunshine Coast farm between May and September. However, due to the high turnover associated with a workforce of backpackers who averaged only a few weeks before moving on, those positions were filled by more than 450 people, he said.

"We made the conscious decision, as an ethical business, to hire seasonal workers directly, rather than use labour hire companies, some of whose practices have become questionable," he said.

"As a high volume of strawberries was produced in south-east Queensland over winter due to seasonal conditions, the whole industry needed more workers than ever," he said.

In-field scanning tracks trays as picked

"In the strawberry industry, pickers are paid by the tray. We had to look for a way to efficiently and accurately record the number of trays picked in the field and match them to the right picker. During the season's peak, some 12,000 trays a day were picked," Mr Turner said.

AgPick meant trays were scanned in the field during harvest with the data uploaded via a live feed, he said.

"The system is fairly new to the market and, to date, has mainly been used in grape production. Piñata Farms is the first strawberry producer to implement it. It has capably met our primary objective to streamline the payroll function.

"We managed an additional 140-plus daily staff in the field without increasing our payroll costs. We didn't have to put on extra people or reallocate resources to deal with the influx of individual payments which have previously been managed by a labour hire contractor," he said.

Technology benefits stack up

"There have also been several side benefits. The live feed from the paddock tells us which blocks have been picked, how many trays have been picked and who picked them. That's important information used to analyse and review the season and plan for the next," Mr Turner said.

Previously, a labour hire company recorded tray numbers, manually or digitally, and provided when harvested fruit arrived at the packhouse.

Two people are required to operate the AgPick scanners in the field, following minimal training.

"A SIM card in the scanning handset uploads the data via mobile phone technology to the cloud, providing instant access from any location.

"Given the enormity of managing our own labour during strawberry season, the system's impact has been significant."

Agricultural Picking Technology chief executive officer, Henrietta Child, said AgPick was launched in May, following extensive development and testing.

"With a background in the wine grape industry, we saw a need for improving the labour management of hand-based farming operations," Ms Child said.

"The combination of RFID technology and payroll integration provides operators with far more information than they are used to. It's all about enabling producers to know what they are spending on a block and if the cost and yield is justified.

"As a farming innovator which really understands technology, Piñata Farms is an excellent partner for a young company," she said.

Mr Turner said AgPick would be implemented within a few weeks at the Stanthorpe farm which produced the summer strawberry crop. Piñata Farms produces strawberries all year 'round.

"As it's configurable across other product lines, we'll also look at using it to track and record harvesting activities during the upcoming Honey Gold mango season," he said.

Based at the Sunshine Coast, Piñata Farms is also Australia's largest pineapple producer and has the exclusive rights to grow specialty Honey Gold mangoes. It employs about 70 full-time staff and up to 350 seasonal workers. About 100 people are employed in the Wamuran packing shed during strawberry season where employees are paid by the number of punnets they pack.