Frank Maconachy is biting at the bit like a thoroughbred at the starting gate; ready to hit the field with his latest prime-time invention for the vegetable industry, a mechanized iceberg lettuce harvester.

The iceberg lettuce harvester has been designed and field tested at several private locations,” said Maconachy, owner and president of Ramsay Highlander Inc., Gonzales, Calif. “We have people ready to order the equipment, but right now they're holding off for economic reasons.”

Reduced vegetable acreage and stagnant prices have held buyers at bay. Vegetable plantings in the Salinas Valley are down about 25 percent, Maconachy said.

The harvester can be customized for salad packs or individually wrapped heads.

The new iceberg lettuce harvester is available in wheel or track drive. The system is available with a four-pulley band saw to cut the lettuce heads ($250,000 range) or a water knife system (about $400,000) that cuts the lettuce with water drawing on copper ion technology. The latter system can kill pathogens including E. coli, salmonella, and lysteria.

“Cutting lettuce with water is a cleaner option since the cut is cauterized which reduces or eliminates lettuce bleeding,” Maconachy said. “The water knife emits positive-charged water from a copper ion generator through nozzles killing the pathogens.” The system significantly reduces needed chemicals including chlorine.

Maconachy's internationally patented mechanical harvesters are geared to reduce farm labor needs.

“Depending on the machine design, you could reduce the harvest crew size from 30 to 12 or 9,” Maconachy said. “The number varies based on the machine design desired by a grower or harvest contractor. Some would rather have an extra workstation for a quality control inspector or extra people sorting through product.”

Ramsay Highlander's mechanized romaine harvester saves over $1 million in reduced labor, Maconachy estimates. “That's the amount that contractors are telling us based on the cost of the machine versus a labor force payroll and pounds harvested per hour.”

Ramsay Highlander has sold more than 30 mechanical harvesters available in wheel or track drive since 2002. The equipment cuts spinach, aragula, chard, and baby leaf lettuces with a band saw. Spinach harvesters sell for $175,000 to $250,000 while the more elaborate romaine lettuce harvester commands $300,000 to $350,000.

All mechanical harvesters are constructed of stainless steel.

“It makes sense to spend the money up front on stainless steel so you're not spending dollars in future mechanical or maintenance costs from non-stainless steel equipment that could develop rust and be a hazard on the food safety front,” Maconachy said.

Two types of “pick-up” technology are available for cutting vegetables. The “headrazor” harvester cuts veggies that stand tall like whole leaf lettuce and romaine. A different mechanism was developed for round head lettuce that rolls once its cut.

“We stand behind all of the manufacturer's warranties on all the components of the machine: the John Deere engine, the hydrostat transmissions, and running gear,” Maconachy said.

Ramsay Highlander equipment harvests vegetables in California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, several Eastern states including Florida and Georgia, plus the United Kingdom (U.K.). Summer vegetables are grown in the U.K. and the equipment is moved across the English Channel to Spain for winter vegetable production. Maconachy plans to license his technology to a U.K.-based company for building the equipment in Europe.

Among the Salinas Valley and Yuma, Ariz. companies using the mechanized equipment are Western Harvesting and Classic Farms, plus Sunfresh Farms in Goodyear, Ariz.

Other harvesters

Maconachy has been asked to develop mechanical harvesters for celery, broccoli, and cantaloupes.

Meanwhile, the company is building a mechanized harvester for the Yulex Corporation, Maricopa, Ariz., to harvest guayule, a plant native to the Southwest that produces natural rubber and energy. Guayule is grown in the California and Arizona low deserts.