PROSSER — Jianfeng Zhou hooked the triangular mouth of a handheld tool around a thin cherry tree branch and turned it on, shaking the branch until cherries and some leaves fell into a catch frame held by Peter Larbi.
"This is only a prototype," said Larbi, a postdoctoral research student with Washington State University's Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems.
He was demonstrating the harvest tool to more than 70 cherry growers, industry leaders and students who gathered for WSU's annual cherry field day Thursday in Prosser.
But the tool is one that could help improve efficiencies with a labor-intensive crop, said Matt Whiting, WSU associate professor of stone fruit physiology. And it could be used in a conventional orchard, without the need for a specific type of canopy architecture.
Washington farmers have been struggling to find enough workers for labor-intensive crops such as cherries, which are hand-picked.
Washington grows the most sweet cherries in the nation, and the state's 2011 crop was worth about $534 million. Benton and Franklin counties have about 9,000 acres of sweet cherries.
The harvest tool demonstrated by Larbi and Zhou, a WSU graduate student, was among the cherry research updates given during the event at Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center's research orchards in Prosser.
After falling into the net Larbi held, the cherries dropped into clear tubing. Larbi explained that they plan to add padding to help protect the quality of the fruit.
Researchers also are working on new cherry varieties that would work well with mechanical harvesting, he said.
Whiting showed farmers and researchers the so-called UFO or "upright fruiting offshoots" canopy architecture system, where cherry trees are planted at a 45-degree angle, and trees are pruned so they grow upright limbs, creating a Y shape along a trellis.
The goal is to grow a tree that's simpler to prune and could be harvested by a machine.
Whiting said they tried mechanized pruning with some UFO blocks two years in a row and found it's likely machines could be used every other year, in rotation with a year of hand pruning.
He said mechanized pruning took about 10 percent of the time that hand pruning did.
And Yiannis Ampatzidis, a WSU postdoctoral research associate, explained how what started as a research tool may become a tool orchard owners can use to manage labor, figure out payroll and even make yield maps of their orchards.
The tool can be clamped onto a standard cherry bin, and includes a scale that a cherry bucket can be placed on to weigh the fruit. Workers can scan their ID into the system to get a receipt with the time and weight, he said. The tool also includes a GPS unit.
Li Tan, a WSU assistant professor, said the data from the tool can be uploaded from a server, so an orchard owner could access it remotely using a device such as an iPad.
Tory Schmidt, a research associate with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, also told growers some foreign countries that could be markets for Washington's sweet cherries may have stricter pesticide maximum residue levels than the United States.
That's why Schmidt said they are trying to give growers preliminary information about what sort of residue levels to expect on their cherries. The research completed so far is available at www.treefruitresearch.com.
He did caution that using rain-protecting sprays on cherries can increase the levels of pesticide residue.