Pcfruit: Less manpower, more results in fruit growing

The 'Proefcentrum Fruitteelt' or 'pcfruit' for short is an internationally recognised research centre focusing on fruit growing. The research centre gives advice to fruit and wine growers and performs innovative research. Researcher Kris Ruysen works in the Environment and Technology department. "With technology, we can address some of the biggest issues that growers face today."

The biggest of these issues? Kris Ruysen: "Fruit growing in our region is under a lot of pressure. There are a lot of cheap imports and at the same time fruit growers are facing tightness in the labour market. Abroad, labour costs are lower and it's not easy either to find well-trained personnel. And you really need that in a specialised sector like this."


The pcfruit researchers therefore focus on two fronts: automation and increasing profitability. Kris: "Take an apple orchard, for instance. One tree is growing well, another is having a harder time. The next one, in turn, has too many blossoms. These have to be thinned to avoid having a tree full of small apples. To get the best result, you would have to fertilise, thin and prune almost every apple tree separately. This is labour-intensive and therefore expensive. That is why, among other things, we are looking into new techniques for precision fruit growing. For example, we let drones collect information on the trees to map which tree needs treatment at what time."

Het Proefcentrum Fruitteelt of kortweg pcfruit is een internationaal erkend onderzoeks-centrum in fruitteelt

Automatic spraying and fertilising

Kris: "Crop protection and fertilisation are two further examples of labour-intensive tasks.

In the ERDF project Autofruit, we are working together with Flanders Make, BAB Bamps and Octinion on developing autonomous vehicles for fruit growing. Flanders Make conducted a safety study to understand the risks of steering carts remotely across the different rows of an orchard. Octinion contributes to the R&D for such vehicles and BAB Bamps provides the expertise on agricultural vehicles. Our task as a research centre is to determine for which crops and exactly for which applications such vehicles can be used. Because, obviously, we want to focus on crops that give the best results, within the shortest time possible."

Robots with pruning and thinning expertise

And then there are the tasks that are currently completely manual. Kris: "Pruning branches, thinning blossoms and, of course, harvesting, that still requires a lot of manpower at the moment. With our Acrofruit project, we are looking into whether we can train robots for those tasks. Mechanically, this is not a problem: today, there are already robots available that can perform such delicate tasks. The problem is the knowledge you need to have for this. You need to be able to look at a tree and judge which branch you should prune for the best result. Or how many blossoms need to be on a tree for an optimal yield. And then again, this differs depending on the variety and type of tree." How far is fruit farming today in implementing technology? Kris: "The partners in our projects are busy figuring that out. Growers are of course entirely ready for technology that can make their lives easier. We continue to look for big and small ways to do that, for example with the Minman project: 'fewer man hours' in pear cultivation. Every efficiency gain makes a tangible difference to our fruit growers."

Bloesems in bloei

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