It is midmorning in Lodi, and the walkie-talkie attached to Paul Burkner's belt crackles to life as he walks the yard at Ag Industrial Manufacturing, Inc., a one-acre maze of parts, machinery and warehouses.
An employee is with a representative from E&J Gallo Winery, and has a question on the length of wire needed to repair a piece of equipment.
Burkner grabs his walkie-talkie.
"Oh, cut it to about 35 inches," Burkner says, as if he were looking at it himself.
The ability to visualize a problem has served Burkner well in his nearly 40 years as an agricultural engineer. The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers named Burkner to its class of 2009 fellows, one of 15 to earn the honor. Only 2 percent of the society's 9,000 members have earned the distinction.
"It's a nice honor," Burkner said, smiling and shrugging his shoulders. "It was a little different in my case. Most of the honorees are in academia, and I don't do a lot of publishing."
Burkner and his partner, Claude Brown, have created custom agricultural machinery since 1972, and with Burkner's brother, Charles Burkner, they formed Ag Industrial Manufacturing in 1979. "He has years of experience in troubleshooting problems that have no obvious solutions," said Brown. "He's the person you call when you need an answer."
Ag Industrial Manufacturing, which started on a rented space at a former Coors bottling plant on South Beckman Road, ushered a sea of change in how wine grapes were harvested. Burkner presently serves as the company's president.
In the days before grapes were harvested mechanically, scores of field workers began harvesting when grapes weren't yet ripe, and didn't finish until grapes were a bit overripe. This often led to grapes fermenting while still in the field. "Now we can run day and night," Brown said. "The quality and cleanliness is better."
Paul Burkner at a glancePersonal, career highlights:
- Lincoln High School, class of 1960
- Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, class of 1964, bachelor's in agricultural engineering
- University of Hawaii, class of 1966, master's in agricultural engineering
- Helped form Ag Industrial Manufacturing, Inc., in 1979
Ag Industrial Manufacturing's reputation grew in the early 1970s, when equipment manufacturer Food Machinery Corporation developed a machine-operated picking head that automated grape harvesting. Burkner attached the picking head to a commercially available harvesting machine and began pitching the marvels of mechanical grape harvesting to area growers.
"We were trying to make a buck and survive," said Burkner of the organization's early days of manufacturing equipment for local farmers.
Before mechanical harvesting became an industry standard, area farmers viewed it with skepticism when it debuted. "Let me put it to you this way: The machines were pretty crude," Burkner said. "Not too many (farmers) were willing to risk having a machine destroy their crops."
Burkner credits local growers Richard Ripken, Leonard Thompson and Charlie Lewis with being forward-thinking enough to allow mechanical harvesting, even though it took nearly an entire two-month harvesting season to pick 80 acres of grapes. By comparison, modern harvesting equipment allows farmers to harvest 80 acres in fewer than four days. Modern equipment can harvest up to 6 tons of grapes per hour, enough to produce 9,000 bottles of wine, Burkner said.
Burkner is credited with the development of another innovation, the grape gondola, a method of conveying up to 6.5 tons of grapes from a machine harvester to delivery trucks parked next to the vineyards. Once the gondola is full, a hydraulic extension lifts its payload into the truck bed.
"Over the years, (grape gondola) has been one of the largest sellers," said Burkner, adding that Ag Industrial Manufacturing has made more than 600 gondolas for growers, most of which are in California and Oregon.
Continuous research and development led to innovations like a Soft Touch hydraulic system, for which Burkner holds a U.S. patent. The Soft Touch system allows twin rails to gently shake grapes into the harvester with a continuous, fluid motion. The smooth motion allows for minimal crop damage, Burkner said.
As lucrative as machine harvesting proved to be, Burkner "figured out that was only two months out of the year," he said.
"We looked at other grape mechanism products," said Burkner. "We tried to have steady business year-round, and we've been fortunate to have excellent customers in the grape business."
Burkner often has to sift through several solutions to an engineering problem. "Sometimes you have compelling ideas that don't make good business sense," said Burkner. "You have to make payroll and pay the rent."