What started out as a bold experiment in mechanized cucumber production in 2005 has now become a dependable production system for one North Carolina Coastal Plain farmer.

Charles Harden of Windsor, N.C., now grows 600 acres of cucumbers — half in the spring and half in the fall — and harvests them with a “Raven” Pickle Harvester. It features an oversized “eliminator” that sorts out oversized cucumbers and puts them back on the field with a conveyor belt. And it destroys the crop as it goes over it.

“It took three years to get to the point where we were comfortable with this system, but it has worked out real well for us,” he says.

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

One especially critical moment is in harvest timing. “We had to learn to grade properly in terms of maturity,” says Harden. ”Now, we pull samples and grades and get percentages to make that call.” The season for the spring crop runs from planting in early April to early June to harvest in early June to mid-July. The fall season starts with planting from mid-July to early August. Harvest runs from mid-August to mid-September.

The most critical thing is to get a uniform stand so that all the plants harvested at a particular time will be mature at that time, says Harden. “We were advised to stagger plantings to give more flexibility at harvest, and that has proved to be a good approach.”

Since it is a once-over machine, if you miss an area because of weather, you may lose some production, says Harden. That would be less of a problem where you hand pick and can harvest multiple times.

All of his cucumbers are irrigated, says Harden. “We use multiple varieties to offset scheduling problems. But now and then it still gets too wet.”

Harden first tried the harvester at the suggestion of Mount Olive Pickle Co., which was looking for more diversity in the harvesting methods of its cucumber growers.

Mechanical cucumber production has gotten a bit simpler in the last few years thanks to several new crop protection chemicals that have really helped, says Harden.

They include Presidio fungicide and Coragen insecticide.

“They have had a huge effect for us,” he says. “But those are not all. We have a lot more tools to work with than three or four years ago.”

Harden has been experimenting with another vegetable crop.

“I have grown 30 acres of banana peppers the past two years,” he says. “I am trying to see if I can grow them between the time I harvest spring cucumbers and the time I plant fall cucumbers. There are problems with this approach, but we may be able to work them out.”

The benefit would be that it would create some work for his H2A crew.

“The jury is still out,” he says. “We had one good year with banana peppers and one bad one.”

Machine-harvested cucumbers have now replaced tobacco on Harden’s farm. It used to be his main crop.

The trend in the pickling cucumber industry is definitely to mechanical harvest, says Jonathan R. Schultheis, North Carolina State University Extension horticultural scientist. “One company told me that 75 percent of its pickling cucumbers are now harvested mechanically,” he says. This same company told him the spring crop had produced very well and that it had obtained 94 percent of what it needed.

Downy mildew moved into the spring cucumber crop unusually early, says Allan Thornton, Extension associate in Sampson County, where cucumbers are grown on a large scale. “Usually, we don’t see it until July. But this year it was out in early June. And in the fall, it was more aggressive than usual.”

That deterred some farmers from planting a fall pickling crop. “They were reluctant to put down money when they could see the disease in the spring crop,” says Schultheis. “The margins are tight enough under good conditions. There is a limited amount you can harvest in a mechanical program, and if you lose much of it before harvest, the potential for profit is not good.”

When you harvest pickling cucumbers entirely by hand, if you don’t have a good stand, it is a manageable situation, says Thornton. You have several opportunities to harvest more of the crop. With mechanical harvest, everything has to be right. You just have one chance.

A good stand, uniformity in the field and irrigation are three keys to mechanical cucumber production, says Thornton.

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