Brexit forces review of harvest decisions


26 April 2022
Machinery helps solve workforce issues

THE impact of Brexit on seasonal labour has forced one growing company to rethink how it handles this year's harvest.


Harvest-time pressure is immense at P J Lee & Sons Limited, which grows only late harvest main crop varieties. The 34,000 tonnes grown must be harvested in as close to a six-week window as possible, prior to the first frosts in early November. With such pressure on the harvest period, the pack house and four grading lines must operate like a well-oiled machine.


In previous years P J Lee & Sons has relied on a workforce of 120-plus people to operate the harvesting operation and four grading lines, many of whom are seasonal workers. But Brexit had a huge impact on the availability of flexible, seasonal labour and at the last harvest, Christopher Lee was struggling to get hold of the labour required to run the operation efficiently.


It forced him to rethink how the next harvest was going to be achieved and he decided to purchase two VHM box filling and stacking systems. The modular system comprises two VHM sets of modules which contains a De-Stackr, a VHM automatic BoxFilr, a VHM in/out roller conveyor and a Stackr.


Four or Five empty boxes are now loaded onto one of the Stackrs. This then un-stacks the boxes and slides an empty box across to the hopper box filler, which fills its own hopper to a desired weight of crop with its unique twin funnel design, ensuring the box is evenly filled. Once the hopper is full, the filler lifts the box up and fills it. Once full it drops the box down, and then the hopper starts filling again, the full box then moves across on the in / out conveyor and in to the other Stackr, which stacks the boxes two high ready for a forklift to take away two full boxes at a time.


In the traditional system, the staffing levels required to operate one grading line, filling 1.25t boxes off twin box fillers comprises two forklift drivers, two box levellers and a further one to two more forklift drivers to move boxes to storage. The VHM system reduces the staff levels to just one forklift driver and one checker. This effectively reduces headcount from six to two per machine.

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Christopher said: “The operation with the VHM system is very slick. The BoxFilr auto weighs each load in its hopper prior to discharging into the box so we can be absolutely sure of the box weight, optimising storage space. The neoprene lined hopper ensures that crop damage at that point in the process is minimal. Empty boxes can be loaded in and will be automatically de-stacked, filled properly finished and stacked 2 boxes high ready for movement into storage. We have eradicated much of the adjustment time required in ensuring boxes are stacked accurately and safely. Plus the whole system is touch screen controlled and is very easy and intuitive to use.”


One of Christopher’s primary concerns was the handling of the five different box types currently operated on farm. He did not want the investment to extend to 18,000 more boxes to replace his current stock. However, the system is fully programmable to handle bespoke box sizes and at set-up he is able to pre-set programmes for the differing sizes; altering pick-up, grab and drop points for each box type. Another concern was the way the English boxes would flow over the rollers and whether older boxes would catch and snag. “We worked with VHM to adapt the machine to enable the smooth and fluid flow of older, English boxes. VHM added in extra chain drives in the middle of the rollers to give the boxes some extra momentum. As a result we have had very few issues from this point of view,” Christopher said.


An additional and unexpected benefit of the system has been the positive effect it has had on health and safety. With fewer forklifts and staff required to run each line, there is less traffic and fewer pedestrians in the yard. The fully-automated nature of the system leads to a calmer operating environment, during what can be a stressful and hectic time. The system can be remote control-operated so can be stopped by the line manager from a distance if the need arises. There is also an ‘auto-stop’ system in place that detects when someone comes close to the machine which halts the whole process, effectively eradicating the risk of injury during operation.


“From a headcount reduction point of view alone, we will break even on the purchase of the system in 2.5 x 6 week seasons. This may even be improved as I am planning on running the two systems next to each other next season in an attempt to trim another forklift operator,” said Christopher.


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