By CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
For the Basin Business Journal
MOSES LAKE — JJ Dagorret doesn’t look like a man who is changing the world.
But he is. One fruit orchard at a time.
The California natives builds machines to help apple growers — and other fruit tree farmers — pick their fruit faster and more efficiently.
“It’s not real super new tech,” the founder of Automated Ag said. “But it’s a recipe that works well. And that was the difference.”Dagorret was no stranger to orchards, to long hours of tending trees and picking fruit in prune and pistachio orchards in California. So he’s learned a thing or two along the way, and started tinkering early, building machines to make the work easier, more efficient, and go faster.
“He’s grown up shaking trees,” his wife and business partner Kelly said. “His dad had a harvesting crew.”
In fact, the move from Northern California to Florida was an attempt to take advantage of longer harvesting seasons. JJ said a typical prune and pistachio season will last 40 days, while citrus in Florida grows and can be harvested for eight months.
“These are $200,000 machines,” he said. “So we said let’s go to Florida and shake orange trees. We just thought that would be great.”
However, the citrus farmers of Florida were not as interested in changing their ways as JJ and Kelly hoped.
“Some people will go broke before they change,” he said. “That’s just how they think.”
So the couple looked around for other ways to use their machines, and saw a use in the apple industry.
“We figured out pretty fast,” he said, “that if we want to be serious about apples, we need to be in Washington.”
It was nearly 10 years ago that the Dagorrets relocated to Moses Lake and started their business Automated Ag, which builds a number of motorized platforms to help tend, prune, harvest and move tree fruit.
Little has changed in the fruit tree industry since people first started cultivating tree fruit, Dagorret said. Someone climbs a ladder, pulls fruit off of trees, puts it in a bag and then when the bag gets full, transfers the contents of that bag to a bin.
“I just designed a machine that people stand on,” Dagorret said. “They pick the fruit off the tree, put it into their bag, everything is the same. But the machine brings the bin right to the people.”
It makes things a lot more efficient, he said.
Automated Ag sells several different models of assisted harvesters, though the Bandit Cub and the Bandit Xpress are their most popular. Workers clip themselves onto the harvesters for safety and a hydraulic lift raises them to apple level.
Dagorret says the machines, which are optimized for the trellis-supported orchards increasing numbers of apple growers are using (in which the trees look more like tall grape vines), almost completely eliminate the need for ladders in the harvesting process.
“Worker injuries are down,” Kelly said.
“Which is a huge thing in our industry,” he added. “A big thing.”
Automatic Ag’s machines can also be used year round for tree and trellis maintenance, not merely for harvest, allowing a grower to get as much out of the investment as possible.
They even have lights to facilitate work at night.
The Dagorrets are now testing a vacuum suction system that will eliminate the need for the bag. The technology comes from a Michigan company that created its own assisted harvester that never caught on, Dagorret said.
“It’s pretty awesome,” he added.
Automated Ag’s “bandits” can be used to tend and harvest just about all fruit trees grown in the newer trellis-supported orchards — apples, cherries, olives, anything.
“We kept (or products) simple and affordable, so smaller growers can have a couple and bigger growers can have 50,” he said.
“It’s what we’re focused on,” he added. “It’s changed the whole industry, the way things are done. And that’s the toughest thing.”