Trained trees: a new, low-tech method for fruit collection

A simple wooden press and a little patience offer the same results that millionaire machines.

Interview to the inventor of the Bendable Tree, Sergio Samoilovich – Ministry of Industry – Argentina. To be published in: Newsletter of the Latin American Fruit Collection Association - June 2014.

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So, you found a way to fight world hunger?

My plan points to reduce the cost of fruit, a significant part of the average food cost. Fruit collection accounts for about half the price of production, whether by hand (most countries) or by machine. The manual collection is the norm in most parts of the world, but it is slow and labor-intensive. Machines are still costly and inefficient.

How do machines collect fruit? Is there some sort of robots?

There has been some development in the field of robotics, using artificial vision and hands. However, artificial hands are fast enough for the task, they need to approach the fruit by complex mechanisms and they do not reach human yield standards. It will be also a long time before a machine can climb a tree like a human with a ladder, or like a monkey.

So, you say that we are still collecting fruit like the monkeys?

Exactly. We climb trees and grab the fruit like in the Stone Age, so nothing has changed. We have baskets and ladders, but that is not much of an advance.

Which is the most current approach to machines?

Some advanced countries use mechanical tree shakers for automatic collection, but this process requires a lot of energy and damages the trees. Also, not all trees are apt for mechanical shaking, either for being fragile or too large. This image gives you an idea of the size and cost of such machines:

olive tree shaker


That is an impressive machine. Not easy to transport, not always fitting in a tree plantation corridor. Looks like a brute force solution.

Exactly. Nature should have created trees with a hinge in the middle of the trunk, for easy shaking. Of course, this is impossible; the trunk needs to convey fluids to the branches. Something like this image:

hinged tree

And you found the next best thing...

The idea of a hinge is attractive. Luckily, young trees can be reshaped if we apply gentle force to them. A tree can be trained to be bendable by a wooden press applied to the trunk:

restricted trunk


The wooden press limits the growth of the tree in one sense, making it easy to shake the tree to collect fruit. Like in the diagram:


But the thin trunk will not let enough fluids go thru....

This is a more detailed diagram showing the applied press, in side and front views:

side view front view

The front view shows how the press is wide enough to let the trunk enlarge in a compensatory way.

The following diagram shows the young tree and the modified tree, with the device from different angles.

Thus, the tree still has the same amount of space for vessels. The modified tree can easily bend without breaking along the narrow portion of the trunk. The press is loosened at collection time, and this allows the tree to be easily bent and shaken.


How long does it take for the tree to be modified?

You can see some results in one year. But most fruit trees need 3 or more years to bear fruit, so you have plenty of time to apply the press and expect the hinge creation.

Do trees allow such a significant deformation without damage or loss of growth?

We have strong evidence in that sense, although we need to conduct more experiments. First of all, let’s see some natural deformation occurring in trees:

natural accident tree thru car

In the first example you see a tree growing thru a crack in the ceiling of an abandoned car. You can see how the tree enlarges its trunk to take advantage of the crack space. In the second example, a tree grows thru an abandoned agricultural machine and some enlargement occurs in the restricted parts of the trunk. So, this proves that compensatory enlargement of restricted tree trunks does occur.

The following photo shows 3 similar trees, one restricted (left) and two normally growing:

3 palms

Restriction in one axis did not affect the height or thickness of the young tree.

The project looks feasible. Do you have a prototype?

Yes, here are some photos of a lemon tree growing with a press-restricted part of the trunk.

lemon front lemon

It is only one tree in limited growing conditions.

So, you are leaving the industrial tree shaking machines out of business?

Actually not, the trees will still need shaking. But the shaking machines acting on modified trees will be more effective and less damaging to the trees. They will use less fuel. The operators will need to loosen the presses, apply the shaking force along the narrowing axis, collect the fruit and tighten the press after shaking. Of course, in places where there is no budget for machines, shaking can still be done by hand.

It is so simple that one wonders why it was not done before.

I thought the same when I started with this project. But after extensive search in the Web I found no previous experience on the subject.
Simple ideas sometimes take longer to spread. Companies with a large investment in machinery do not want to look into simple, cheap solutions. In some cases, scientists reject opinions from lay people. And farmers stick to ancient practices and wait until the last moment to accept an innovation.
I think it is better to go ahead than deeply analyze why it was not proposed before.

You are not a food scientist?

I am a biomedical scientist, with no previous experience in trees. But I have now an alliance with the local university experts, so I hope to advance with solid bases and publish my results.

What was all the fuss about a carrot tree?

There is not carrot tree, sorry for that. This is my non-tree scientist side. A friend had drawn and painted such a thing for an elementary school assignment, and her mother managed to intercept it before it reached the school. But the story was too funny to die there. I just wanted to do a memorable video to spread this bendable tree project, and glued some carrots with Velcro to my lemon tree. The home-made movie about a carrot tree is posted in YouTube.

carrot tree

What do scientist say about this?

I got mixed opinions. Some of them reject the idea without any analysis. Some agree on the need of more experiments to collect data and analyze the success chances. A small group in the School of Agronomic Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires had access to my data and agreed to participate in the project, provided I get some funding.

What is next?

I created a crowd-funding campaign in Indiegogo and similar sites. I expect to collect some money for experiments, development, design, and marketing. There are many ways in which people can help me and participate: testing, advice, contacts. There are rewards for them all. I invite your readers to visit the project and push it with a contribution or an investment.

And what if you get the required amount?

We will produce a fast prototype of the press and the modified trees.
We will show the prototypes to the prospective investors.
We will start the patenting process in major markets.
After that, we will be in the market and in the fields, showing and selling.
Please check for details.

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