WOOLSTOCK - There's something so new and interesting on Robin Hamer's Fleur Farms near Woolstock that it attracted friends, neighbors and other farmers to watch it Saturday.
The attraction is a mechanical harvester for her crop of aronia berries that makes short work of what had otherwise been a very labor-intensive process.
She said it's the first one in the area.
Mike Mathieson, right, co-owner of the aronia berry harvester being driven by Randy Turner on Robin Hamer’s Fleur Farms near Woolstock Saturday. The machine is the first of its kind to be used for berry harvesting in the area.
"We picked 17,600 pounds on Tuesday," she said, "You couldn't do that by hand unless you had 150 or more people."
By being able to pick her 2,000 aronia berry bushes in only a few days, it allows all of them to be at the same state of ripeness when they get to their eventual market.
"It shortens up your picking season," she said.
Hamer co-owns the $75,000 machine with three other aronia berry producers. Terry Halverson, of Eagle Grove; Mike Mathieson, of St. Charles; and Larry Turner, of Belmond, make up the group. The machine is made by BEI International.
The partnership is much like the equipment partnerships that were once common for grain threshers and steam tractors.
"There's a community benefit," she said, "Many hands make light work."
In addition, everyone brings a unique talent.
Mathieson does much of the marketing, and Turner handles communications. What's Hamer's role?
"I've got an artistic background and a set of hands," she joked.
The machine works on a simple principle - if you vibrate a berry, it will fall off its plant. As the self-propelled harvester is driven down the rows, mechanical arms flex and shake the plants. The berries drop onto two conveyor belts which drop them into flat totes. A rider on the back removes the totes when they are full and places them on the ground for collection.
It's driven from a seat on top, about 6 feet above the ground.
Turner said that the harvester is actually intended for harvesting blueberries. With a few modifications, it's suitable for the aronia bushes.
Of course, the bushes have to modified a bit, too.
"We need to be trimming our bushes up," he said, "We can't get the real low berries."
He said he's also pleased with the time savings.
"Last year it took us from Aug. 3 to the 22nd," he said, "That's picking every day, all day."
"The last day we were just short of 18,000 pounds," he said.
A single person can't even come close to competing with that.
"You're lucky if you have somebody that can pick 15 to 20 pounds an hour," he said, "That's somebody that really knows how to pick."
Turner said the crop is destined to be turned into juice. It's sold in various blends with other juices. Aronia juice is extremely high in antioxidants.
He said that the heat and dry conditions have done little for the harvest; a good yield is 30 pounds per plant.
"I'm hoping to get 10 pounds per plant," he said.
Like any new piece of equipment, there's a learning curve. One of the wheels got bent slightly during the harvest Saturday and had to be bent back with a jack.
Hamer took it in stride.
"It's called farming," she said.