At a sprawling shop in Lodi, machines, huge and complex, are being created. Grape harvesters born at Ag Industrial Manufacturing engineering must be durable enough to rumble all night through a vineyard, yet delicate enough to shake the fruit off a vine without undue damage. Each costs as much as a Ferrari, and each must be delivered on a tight schedule that can mean the difference between a smooth harvest — or a minor calamity.
The grapes are waiting. The summer sun warms the skin of each berry. Sugars are building up within the fruit. The leaves are an emerald green with a bare hint of brown drying the edges.
Small green and purple bunches have overtaken thousands of acres of vines in San Joaquin County. Harvest is inching closer with every passing day.
Workers at Ag Industrial Manufacturing are hustling to keep up with nature. They have a few short weeks each summer to create customized, top-of-the-line grape harvesters. It is a race, of sorts; a race that requires the steady and precise fusing of metals, plastics and electronics — all driven by ingenuity and old-fashioned elbow grease.
For the Lodi economy, there are likely no other machines as essential. Consider that well over 100 growers cultivate roughly 100,000 acres of wine grapes in the Lodi area, worth, in 2011, more than $280 million.
Most of that acreage, and the majority of those grapes, were harvested by machines created in the compound of shops and yards at Ag Industrial Manufacturing, or AIM.
Claude Brown and Paul Burkner, the president and vice president of AIM, have spent 20 years building, rebuilding and perfecting these engineering marvels that do a full day’s work of 10 men in a few hours. This year, they have three growers who paid a $100,000 down payment last winter to have brand new harvesters ready to reap the fields in September.
One of those customers is Vino Farms. Vice president Craig Ledbetter ordered two grape harvesters to add to the company’s fleet of 17 harvesters. Vino Farms harvests 5,000 acres each year in Clarksburg and Lodi.
“It’s a dramatic cost savings for us. We can cover more acreage in less time,” said Ledbetter. “In the future there’s not even going to be hand laborers. We need these machines to retain the ability to harvest the fruits of our yearlong labor.”
To reach the goal, a dozen men work on welders, robotics, steel cutters and plasma lasers to create each machine from the ground up at their Beckman Road shopyard. For Vino Farms, the workers are building a harvester called 201375, or the Ledbetter 3. If everything goes right, 201375 will be ready to work by harvest.
But if it doesn’t, grapes could rot and money could be lost.
Building a better harvester
The harvesters come to life in a busy, cluttered metal fabrication shop on Lodi’s Eastside. Round bins full of nuts, bolts and screws of every size and material line the back wall. Long aisles filled with ceiling-high shelves of metal strips and small parts crowd one corner.
Huge machinery claims center stage in the shop floor, including a robotic welder, a computerized plasma and flame torch to cut out steel like cookies on a sheet, and an 8-foot-tall contraption able to cut and bend steel plates up to 3 inches thick.
The ringing of grinders fills the air, set off by sparks as metal is wrenched into shape. Fifty workers, mostly men who got their training on the job, keep the place humming year-round.
Brown and Burkner got their start in 1979 when they opened the Lodi shop on Beckman Road. During the day, they repaired parts, built custom pieces and sold steel out the door. During harvest, the team transformed into grape harvesters for hire. The machines were so new at the time that few growers could afford their own. The pair from AIM bought two harvesters and contracted with growers to pick grapes.
Brown came from Rio Vista originally, and moved to Lodi when he got married. He left a job at a large corporation to find work that fit with the agricultural roots of his childhood. Aside from spelling out the name of the shop, AIM is his daughter Mia’s name spelled backwards.
Burkner grew up in Stockton and graduated from Lincoln High School. He studied agricultural engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and got his master’s degree in the same subject at the University of Hawaii. In the past, he’s worked for the USDA and helped fabricate harvesters for dates, onions and citrus trees, among other work.
Tom Homer joined the team in 1980, right out of high school in Paris, Ark. He was with Brown and Burkner through the entire development process.
Homer ran rows in double shifts while Brown and Burkner slept in their pickup trucks on the field in case anything went wrong. But the machines they were using came with too many problems.
“We were using a product manufactured by somebody else, and we had to keep modifying it because it wouldn’t hold up,” Brown said.
They had to be pulled with tractors, and fit awkwardly over the vines. They ran out of gas too fast, and workers were refueling in the dead of night. The picking heads on each machine weren’t adjustable for vines of different heights, so each machine could only work on a few fields. The machines couldn’t even make it over a curb to get to the grapes.
“Forget about the technology of harvesting. We couldn’t even get out to the field sometimes,” said Burkner.
They could do better. It was time to make their own machine. Burkner dove into his engineering skills and came up with their first grape harvester. It takes nine people to run the operation, but they get more work done in an hour than the same group could pick in a full day.
The first machine was birthed in 1990, and dubbed the GH9000. G is for grape, H is for harvester, and 9000 is for the year. Since then, 76 AIM-built harvesters have been sold to Gallo Wine, Sutter Home Winery, Pacific Agrilands and dozens of other companies.
How it works
Watching the harvester move through a vineyard to strip grapes off the vine is like watching a green monster devouring fruit a row at a time, with a sidecar attached.
The mammoth machine is a 12-foot-square frame with a driver’s seat secured to the top. The harvester straddles a row of grapes, pinching the vine with two long horizontal arms. They shake rapidly at 2,000 RPM until the berries fly off the vine.
Two conveyor belts move the fallen grapes out to the front of the harvester, where ledges on a vertical rotating belt carry them upward. The line travels through a fan blower to whisk away any loose twigs, leaves or bugs. Once the fruit reaches the top, the twin lines hit a cross conveyor and parade past a sorting box. Two workers perch in the box as the machine moves down the row, tossing out bad grapes or any debris the blower missed.
Sorted grapes travel across the next row on an oscillating arm to fall into a huge gondola. That’s the sidecar-style piece. A tractor driver pulls it along the field to the left of the harvester, keeping pace as the monster works down the row. The gondola is large enough to hold six tons of grapes.
That’s 5,000 bottles of wine waiting to happen.
Creating a marvel
This machine doesn’t spring up out of the toolbox fully made. It starts as a pile of steel delivered by PDM Steel Services of Stockton.
But no cutting is allowed until the designs are drawn up.
Ben England is an engineer. He works on the design of each harvester, tailoring it to the needs of the buyer.
Growers conference with Burkner. Some want a longer drop arm, or a water tank to help keep the dust down, or a back platform.
“There are new things every year. Especially more electronics,” said Burkner.
England uses a 3D drafting program, to manage the designs. England studied at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and graduated in 2012. He got his start in a high school welding class and learned computerized designs in college.
The drawing is printed, and a cut list is drawn up and sent to the shopyard.
Step one, Homer says, is building the frame. Ninety feet of steel are bent and cut into two 10-foot-tall U-shapes, with horizontal bars bridging the gaps on either side. Sturdy steel legs are welded on. Next, the wheels are installed.
These are 10-ply Firestone rubber tires. They stand over four feet tall. The wheels and rims are cut and shaped at AIM.
Next, workers add an engine stand and a sorting cage, then the stainless steel mounts, which later will hold the tanks for fuel and water to run the intricate hydraulic system.
That’s it for the basic chassis. This is when the second payment of $70,000 comes in, a step down from the initial $100,000 payment when Ledbetter ordered the machine.
Next, one entire day is spent painting the chassis a vibrant green. In fact, they’re all green. Why?
Gallo Winery was the first to order the harvester, and requested a vibrant green to match their trucking fleet. Since, then, all but two harvesters were delivered in Gallo Green. One white harvester was ordered, and is forevermore called The Albino. One more is in blue.
“We will paint it other colors, somewhat reluctantly,” said Burkner.
The paint dries in a day. Then the real work begins.
Preparing for the birth
Two consoles are installed up top next to the driver’s seat.
The one on the left runs the heart and brains of the harvester. Without this console, the picking head doesn’t shake, the conveyors don’t run and the debris blowers make no breeze.
The right-hand console is strictly for driving the harvester and running the complex hydraulic system. Next, both the fuel tank and the hydraulics tank are hooked up.
The fuel tank holds 100 gallons. The original models were much smaller, but when running a harvester at night, it’s hard to tell when the fuel is going to run out.
When the fuel tanks are in, the engine is loaded from Cummins West Incorporated in Sacramento. It takes up one side of the harvester, tucked under the seat and staging box.
The engine burns 3.5 to four gallons of diesel fuel an hour and can run for a full 24 hours with no problems.
The workers are inching closer to the second major milestone: The birth. That’s when the machine will have a heart and all the tubing to form an arterial system. The hydraulics system is centralized to the right of the harvester, directly opposite of the engine.
“We’ve got to put the hydraulics on it. A baby can’t be born if it can’t breathe or exhaust,” Burkner said, leaning over Tim Valente as he dressed out an engine with tubes, hoses, electrical wires and all the valves plumbed in.
A key was inserted and a switch flipped. Vino Farm’s 201375 was alive, but far from complete.
There is much to do: Build conveyor belts, construct subframes and fabricate blowers to remove debris.
And in the vineyard 12 miles north, the green grapes grow larger day by day. The race against nature continues.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.