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FairWeigh Uses RFID to Ensure Cherry Pickers Are Correctly Compensated

The system, developed by Washington State University researchers, links the weight of each load of cherries with the worker who picked them.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 19, 2015

During this year's harvest season, fruit orchards in Washington State have been testing an RFID-based solution to track the quantity of cherries picked by each worker. The system is intended to provide an automated and reliable method of determining how much each individual picks and will thus be paid. The solution includes an RFID reader built into a scale for weighing harvested fruit, as well as passive tags embedded in wristbands for identifying pickers. Mike Omeg, the owner of Omeg Orchards, located in The Dalles, Ore., says that based on the results of the 2014 and 2015 seasons' test, the farm intends to implement the system in several phases, with some of its labor force using the technology for harvesting operations in 2016, and all workers utilizing it by 2017.

FairWeigh is a Washington State University (WSU) spinoff founded by researchers who originally developed the technology to help conduct tree physiology research in the field, according to WSU associate professor Matthew Whiting, the technology's lead developer and one of the company's cofounders. The research, which took place about six years ago, centered on studying the productivity of cherry pickers, as there was little data indicating how productive each individual worker had been. The researchers needed a way to measure how many cherries each worker picked, and when. In that way, they could learn such details as when pickers may become fatigued, what demographics affect a worker's productivity and other conditions that might influence how well they picked the fruit.

The portable FairWeigh device has a built-in electronic weight scale to weigh a worker's bin, as well as an RFID reader to capture that individual's ID.
The WSU team built a solution consisting of a pallet scale and an RFID reader mounted on a wheeled frame, hooked to a vehicle that was driven onto the orchard. Individual pickers were assigned RFID wristbands. A bin was placed on the scale, and each time a picker brought a container full of cherries to the bin, that person tapped his or her RFID-enabled wristband near the reader and poured the cherries into the bin in order to weigh the fruit.

WSU presented the details of the research to area farmers in 2011, and several of those invited suggested that the technology could serve other purposes as well. "They came to us at the industry event and suggested the technology could be used as a payroll solution," Whiting says.

Most fruit pickers are paid not by the hour but by the quantity of fruit they pick each day. Therefore, tracking the amount harvested produce is important both to the farmer and to the picker. In most cases, growers use a manual method to track workers' productivity. The system requires that a checker stand near the bin of fruit, and that paper punch cards be distributed to pickers. As each worker fills a container of cherries, he brings it to the bin and presents it to the checker, who must visually confirm that the container is full and thus ready to have its contents dumped into the bin. The checker then punches a hole in the picker's card for each container of fruit picked. At the end of the day or picking period, the worker turns in the card, which has his name on it, and the farm's office staff uses it to calculate his pay.

This manual method poses a variety of potential problems, however. Checkers and pickers can often end up in arguments or have bad feelings related to the checker's decisions regarding what constitutes a full container. If the checker decides the container is not filled sufficiently, the picker may need to lug it back to a tree, carry it up a ladder and finish filling it. On the other hand, pickers may argue with the checker and try to convince him that a container is full when, in fact, it is not.

The manual method also carries the risk of checkers or other staff members cheating for a friend and punching more holes than the picker actually earned.

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