Could cucumbers harvested by machine rather than by hand become a realistic diversification enterprise in the southern Coastal Plain?

A couple of farmers in northeast North Carolina got a chance to try out the concept during the last two seasons. Though the jury is still out, they have seen enough to want to expand production in 2006.

The farmers — Brent Pierce of Ahoskie, who farms with his father Stuart and his brother Pate, and Charles Harden of Windsor — planted spring and fall crops of 100 and 200 acres of mechanical harvested cucumbers, respectively in 2005. They had planted similar amounts in 2004, but a chemical-resistant strain of downy mildew ruined the crop.

But the 2005 crop turned out well, says Harden.

“I would like to get bigger in cucumbers,” he says. “The crop is quick in regards to growth, and because you can grow two crops in a year, it gives an early cash flow as well as your normal cash flow for your fall crops. I haven’t found them too difficult to grow. But it does require intense management, and timeliness is very important.”

That is particularly important at planting, which took place from mid-April to mid-May for the spring crop this past season and from mid-July through August for the second crop.

“To spread out harvest, our plantings are staggered. We plant every three days with two varieties of different maturity,” he says.

The most critical thing is to get a uniform stand so that all the plants will mature at the same time, says Brent Pierce. “Mount Olive, N.C., Pickles advised us to stagger plantings to give more flexibility at harvest, and we have done so.”

Disease control is a major consideration with cucumbers. “The best chemicals are Tanos rotated with Previcure Flex,” says Harden. “They worked real well together because they have two different modes of action. But that was just on the fall crop — I didn’t need anything on the spring crop.”

Harden uses high-volume, high-pressure sprayers to apply these chemicals. “You need about 200 psi to blow it down in the canopies,” he says.

When the cucumbers are ready to pick, Harden and Pierce go in with a “Raven” Pickle Harvester, made in Ravenna, Mich. It features an oversized “eliminator” that sorts out oversized cucumbers and puts them back on the field by way of a conveyor belt. A once-over machine, the Raven destroys the crop when it goes over it.

“This concept has been around for 20 or 30 years, so it is not new,” says Bob Quinn, field representative of Mount Olive Pickle Co. “But it is new to North Carolina. Up until now, substantially all cucumber harvest in North Carolina has been done by hand. There had been an experiment or two, but mechanization had never really been successful in North Carolina before.”

The staff at Mount Olive Pickles decided it would be wise to diversify the methods their growers use for harvest.

“Mount Olive remains committed to hand harvest, but it seemed wise to put some of our resources behind mechanization,” says Quinn. “The cost of production continues to escalate for those who use hand labor. At the same time, North Carolina lags behind other cucumber-producing states that have higher percentages of mechanical harvest. The time just seemed ripe to explore mechanization.”

A Raven harvester costs about $75,000. Mount Olive Pickle has bought several of them and is selling them to farmers over a five-year period.

“We hope to grow the program with new growers within 150 miles or so of the station,” says Quinn. “The numbers look pretty good so far. We need to make it worthwhile if we expect growers to diversify.”

If a grower could make in the neighborhood of $1,000 or more per acre, it would be worth his time and investment to get into machine-harvested cucumbers, says Quinn.

“We put the grading station in the northeast quadrant of North Carolina, even though it hasn’t had much cucumber production in recent years. But this area offers fresh ground, center pivot irrigation, and good cucumber soils. Today’s cucumber varieties are well suited to mechanized production under these conditions.”

Brent Pierce sees promise in what they have done so far. “We will continue to grow cucumbers,” he says. “But it has been a learning experience to this point. It has not been a big profit item for us yet, but there is definitely money to be made with this crop.”