A former Far North Queensland banana farmer believes a mechanical banana harvester he developed 20 years ago will eventually become the way of the future.
With horticultural farming practices increasingly moving towards automation and robotics, Tom Johnston maintains his robotic harvester reduces fruit damage, is more cost and labour efficient and reduces the risk of injury and disease to workers.
He said he built the first prototype of the device in 1998 and has had it commercially available for the past 15 years.
“It started in 1996. I had a banana farm and I sold it. I had an illness and was paralysed and that is how I came up with the idea, how am I going to cut bananas if I can’t walk,” Mr Johnston said.
Today, his device is not the only mechanical banana harvester on the market, however Mr Johnston believes it was the first.
The robotic device can be fitted to the lifting arm of an excavator or other articulated machine. It works by cutting the stalk from the trees and placing the bunch onto a trailer.
“No one touches the bunches so they don’t get damaged. You can save seven cartons per trailer through less fruit damage.”
“There are no knife injuries, no-one is slipping over on their way to the trailer. I can lift a 70kg bunch with three fingers, no man on this earth will outwork a hydraulic pump. One machine can replace three men.”
The harvester costs between $20,000-$110,000 depending on whether the buyer wants Mr Johnston to supply the vehicle that the robotic arm is attached to.
So far, Mr Johnston has only sold one of the machines, but believes the lack of interest is because – to use the machine – a grower needs to change their existing planting methods and paddock structure.
“You have to time your paddocks into 100 days of bunching, instead of 365 days of bunching. However you can increase the density of plants because the space between the bunches is not required because workers don’t need to walk between the trees to get to the trailer.”
Mr Johnston believes an even greater benefit of using the device – which extracts the bunch but leaves the banana tree in tact – is the products that can be derived from the tree itself.
“There are 1000 products in a banana tree, the tree is gold. The fibre is the fastest growing fibre on earth. If we leave the fibres in tact we can use a veneering machine to make paper, wallets, hats … building products that are fire resistant, including bricks to build houses that don’t burn, and the outside leaves can be turned into stockfeed.”