John Berry’s cell phone rings constantly which sounds like a skein of ducks flying overhead.

The phone ringer sound is a duck quack. On an early fall day in Berry’s office in Ventura, Calif., the repeated quacks sounded like a continuous V formation of ducks flying overhead.

Many of Berry’s phone calls are inquiries about the mechanical celery harvester the inventor brought to market in March of last year. Berry is an engineer and entrepreneur with 30-plus years experience in the farm equipment business.

Berry’s diesel-powered invention is the Eco Ag Harvester touted as the first steel track crawler-based mechanical celery harvester on the market. All surfaces which come into contact with the produce are manufactured with food quality stainless steel.

“I believe the Eco Ag Harvester will change how celery is harvested in the future,” Berry said.

The diesel-powered harvester allows workers to cut and pack 14 rows of celery at a time; enough to fill 3,000 to 4,000 cartons a day without the boxes ever touching the ground.

The steel track is important as it allows the harvest of celery even under wet and muddy conditions. The tracks reduce the deep ruts in the soil, often associated with tire-based harvesters operated in a wet environment.

“The Eco Ag Harvester means the celery harvest no longer has to come to an abrupt halt due to inclement weather,” Berry said. “This allows the celery harvest to continue 24-hours a day, seven days a week if needed.”

This ability, Berry adds, allows growers and custom harvesters to keep the harvest on track which improves harvest efficiency.

“The harvester cuts, cleans, and packs celery with less waste,” Berry added.

Where did Berry get his idea? He worked for the local Caterpillar dealer as a sales representative for years. Caterpillar is well known for its track-based farm machinery.

As a Caterpillar salesman, Berry inquisitively asked potential customers about their ideas on how farm equipment could be improved.

Berry jotted down pages of ideas and launched his business Eco Power Systems LLC 12 years ago to design the next generation of farm equipment.

His first invention was a modified Caterpillar 939C loader called the Eco Ag Loader complete with Caterpillar’s track system. Berry then set his focus on building the Eco Ag Harvester for the celery industry. The first harvester hit the market in March of last year.

Nine very curious celery growers showed up on the first day the machine harvested celery in the field, Berry says.

California is the largest celery producer in the U.S. More than half of the state’s crop is grown in Monterey County with Ventura County a close second.

The base sticker price for the Eco Ag Harvester is about $330,000. The harvester is manufactured in Ventura. An available $18,000 upgrade allows the machine to harvest only celery hearts at a time.

“The Eco Ag Harvester is all Caterpillar,” Berry explained. “We designed it with all Caterpillar components so replacement parts can be purchased off the shelf from one place – Caterpillar. It’s one-stop shopping for engine components, pumps, and other parts.”

End of hump process

To date, Berry has sold five harvesters – three to West Coast Harvesting in Somis in Ventura County, and plus one unit each to Castro Harvesting in Gonzales and Jackpot Harvesting, both in Monterey County.

These custom harvest companies harvest celery in the Ventura County area from late July to about Thanksgiving and then move to the Salinas area for the remainder of the year.

Berry designed the 14-row harvester to fold up for transport on a low-boy trailer. Once in the field, the two 50-foot sections unfold for harvest.

Benjamin Vasquez, owner, West Coast Harvesting, financed construction of the first harvester. Once built, Vasquez took the harvester to the field. He was so pleased with its performance that he ordered two more.

“The harvester works great in the field. I am very pleased,” Vasquez said.

Among the other benefits the harvester provides is the elimination of the traditional “wheel hump wagon” process.

Traditionally, workers cut the celery and place it on the ground. Packers pick up the celery, grade it, pack it on a wheel hump wagon, and then place it in boxes until the weight reaches about 60 pounds.

The boxes are placed on the ground and loaded onto trucks by hand or by a loader. The hump process is very physically demanding work.

The Eco Ag Harvester eliminates the hump wagon process. Instead, cut stalks are placed on the harvester, cleaned, washed, and packed. Boxes move by conveyor onto pallets which are lifted off the machine and placed on a truck by a mechanical loader.

In the end, the no-hump method reduces physical injuries, and reduces the chance of E. coli contamination from stalk contact with the soil during harvest.

“This new method is safer for workers,” Vasquez explained. “Instead of employees lifting heavy boxes of celery, hand lifting is eliminated. This is a much safer method for employees and reduces the risk of accidents.”

The elimination of the hump process frees up two to three employees to focus on other jobs. While men typically lift heavy boxes and push the hump wagon, the elimination of the strength requirement means men and women can now pack celery. This is especially important given the ever tightening availability of farm workers.

In addition, Berry says the harvester reduces stalk damage by 20 percent to 30 percent versus the hump method. Less damage to the product means better control of the pack and financial savings.

The Eco Ag Harvester carries about 500 gallons of water to wash the celery. A full harvest day requires about two tanks of water.

The machine is hydrostat (hydraulically driven) and moves from zero to 5.5 miles per hour.

All hydraulic controls on the machine are manual with no electrical valves to reduce maintenance and down time.

“We built this harvester to last a long time,” Berry concluded. “Structurally, this is a heavy duty machine.”

He believes the harvester can be tweaked to harvest other hand-picked crops, including cabbage and broccoli.

cblake@farmpress.com