Selective asparagus harvester on the market next year

Thérèse van Vinken
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Cerescon will introduce the first selective asparagus harvester to the market next year.

Cerescon will introduce the first selective asparagus harvester to the market next year. "We are going to return this 'white gold' to the farmers", says Thérèse van Vinken, Cerescon CEO. "By automating the process, running costs are halved. Labour costs account for about 50% of the farmers' expenses." Cerescon Harvesting Innovation, a high-tech start-up, has developed this automated selective asparagus harvester. Thérèse stresses that "it was needed to prevent the disappearance of asparagus cultivation from the Netherlands. Ron Martens, co-owner of Martens Asperges, is going to primarily use this machine to harvest his asparagus in the upcoming season. He has been enthusiastic about it since he first heard about it and contributed ideas as to which features the machine needed.

Peace of mind

Ron: "During the season we employ 300 temporary workers. Each year it becomes more difficult to find suitable laboureres. In addition, running costs increase year-on-year due to increasingly stricter government regulations. For example, we have to organise transport and accommodation for these workers ourselves. We have had to employ three people just to deal with all this admin work." The asparagus harvester provides a solution for him. "It represents peace of mind, stability and a secure future," says Ron, pointing at his son, Stijn. "It also means asparagus cultivation will continue in the Netherlands and will not be moved to low-wage countries."

The secret

That they both took the time, during harvest peak time, to attend the media introduction, speaks volumes, Thérèse points out. The fact that the Netherlands can provide the best quality asparagus on a same-day basis, gave rise to the idea of the asparagus harvester, around the year 2000. There have been other machines designed and built, but they all had the same flaw: How to find the spears that needed to be picked. Aspargus farmer, Marc Vermeer, determined that they needed to be detected underground, before their heads break through the surface. His brother and inventor, Ad, discovered the secret of 'the smith'. This method has since been patented.

Functions

Ultra-thin filaments probe carefully through the soil beds. They cannot touch the asparagus as this will damage the spears. For this reason, the filaments have sensors that detect water, which is what asparagus largely consists of. As soon a spear is found, the filaments are retracted within milliseconds and the coordinates of the asparagus is sent to the picking robot. This robotic arm consists of a sheath that protects the spear with cutting and picking apparatus below this. The machine does not have to be stationary during the harvest as the arm moves in the same direction and, at the same speed as the tractor. After the asparagus has been harvested, a soil repair module ensures that the asparagus beds have the correct density. This ensures that the new crowns do not grow crooked.

As with most sophisticated machinery, it has many other features. As per the wishes of the asparagus farmers, there is also a feature for plastic handling, and for the collection and disposal of the plants. A user group, consisting of innovative growers in the Netherlands and Germany (Vermeer Asperges, Martens Asperges, Teboza, Maas B.V. Kessel, De Wit Asperges, Kreienbaum, De Wit Asperges, Contractor Maas, Winkelmann, Thiermann), advised Cerescon as to all the requirements the machine had to comply with. They are the launching customers and have first pick when the machine is available for purchase.

Machine

The first machine will be delivered before the start of the 2018 season. It has a capacity of 40 hectare and harvests three rows at once.This means it can replace 60 to 75 hand pickers. The asparagus harvester from Cerescon integrates all the requirements needed to harvest these plants. The expectation is that it will ensure that better quality asparagus (with less damage and less discolouration) will be harvested, as well as increased yields for the farmers. Th machine is going to cost between 500.000 and 600.000 euro. If the machine is used correctly, it will pay for itself in just over three seasons.

Research

This season Cerescon is starting a three-year research project in collaboration with Wageningen University and Research (WUR) to determine how well the automated harvester performs with regards to quality and quantity as compared to manual harvesting. Three experimental fields have been established in Limburg with Martens and Teboza farms and the LimGroup company. Later in the year, the crop's regrowth will be examined to determine what influence this harvesting method may have on next year's yield. This will be a good indicator of the machine's performance. "It is an interesting cross-over between agriculture and the high-tech industry", says Chris de Visser, WUR Business Developer.

Demonstration

The ẞ-version of the harvester could not be fully demonstrated at the media presentation. It harvested a crooked spear. "We have a few glitches to resolve, but I expect that all four features will be successfully integrated in no time", says Ad. Private investor, Cees Welten: "The riskiest part is over. The product has proved itself to be technically sound. Cerescon can now develop into a fully-fledged business." Cerescon is financed by private financing, Innovatiekrediet, Metropool Eindhoven, a MIT-subsidy and StartLife's start-up programme.

Selective asparagus harvester on the market next year