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Romaniuk calls self-propelled mechanical garlic harvester a ‘100 per cent success’

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

Bob Romaniuk is very much a hand-crafted traditionalist. However, 43 years into a storied career, the founder of the Brant County Garlic Company’s adoption of a self-propelled mechanical harvester reflects a modern reality faced by many agricultural producers.

“I can’t find anybody to work.”

Garlic Harvestor
Bob Romaniuk,Garlic harvester inventor

Romaniuk founded his operation in 1978, very much in the European tradition of hand-planted, hand-harvested and hand-tied and hung bunches of garlic drying in barns. And while his emphasis on ‘quality, quality, quality’ has not changed, Romaniuk’s approach has been forced to evolve with the times in reaction to labour challenges made worse by COVID-19.

In simple terms, the shortage of local seasonal labour is not limited to the garlic industry, and while his operation is large enough, it’s practically not long enough - a shorter and separated planting and harvesting windows - to bring in offshore labour. Contracted work crews are one solution. Their rates have risen over time, but perhaps due in part to pandemic-related challenges, have jumped more significantly recently, Romaniuk facing hourly rates between $18 and $20 an hour.

“The money adds up,” he said, financial considerations ultimately opening the door to mechanization. “It boils down to cost.”

His own experience on wife Irene’s parents’ tobacco farm and beyond illustrated the concept. Primers still walked behind horse-drawn boats when Romaniuk started helping out in 1967/68, transitioning through priming machines to automatic harvesters and bulk kilns.

A mechanical versus human touch does carry the potential for a percentage of increased damage, which can be minimized through operational caution, but he still estimates at between two and five per cent.

“I got off my high horse trying to be a perfectionist,” said Romaniuk, grudgingly accepting reality. “Mechanization is the only way to survive financially.”

He looked to Henry Kukielka of Kukielka Fabricating near La Salette to turn his concept into reality, trusting not only in his mechanical skill, but personal and practical hands-on experience as an agricultural producer.

“Anything you want to think of, they can build in that shop,” Romaniuk credited. “They are very good at it. “Henry said ‘Let’s go, let’s build it.’”

The resultant self-propelled mechanical harvester was designed to replace a process beginning with a tractor-mounted undercutter loosening garlic bulbs from the ground, which would subsequently be picked up by hand, have dirt shaken off of them, tied into bunches of 18 or 19 bulbs, and then hung in the barn to dry.

Romaniuk’s new harvester is a self-propelled unit which undercuts bulbs, takes them up to a cutter which cuts and removes stems, leaving bulbs which are then transferred via conveyor to bins carried on a wagon pulled beside the harvester, also carrying two people who remove any weeds or other detritus. The bulbs are then transferred into converted tulip bulb boxes holding between 28 and 30 pounds of garlic each, and 625 of these inserted into a kiln for an extended, very low heat (“More air than anything,” says Romanium) drying period.

Mechanical garlic harvesting options do exist, but Romaniuk was looking for a self-propelled model, rather than one pulled behind a tractor, and its significant attendant capital cost. Secondly, he preferred the dedicated use model, having time to service and prepare his harvester as a unit, ready to go when called upon, rather than being needed for multiple applications.

“This way, that’s its job.”

The solution they arrived at was a 270HP New Idea unisystem power plant, built 15 or 16 years ago, but still available says Romaniuk. He considered drive units from four-wheel drive cotton pickers, which can be purchased reasonably. “And there’s a pile of them for sale.”

The cost of getting them from the southern United States where they tend to be located to Brant County, with or without COVID challenges, led to the decision to go with the two-wheel-drive unisystem. If there were future ‘2.0’ modifications, Romaniuk says adding four-wheel-drive capability might be a consideration.

“That would be the only thing, changing the power plant.”

The complexity of the Kukielka Fabricating mechanical harvester design is illustrated by the fact it contains 16 hydraulic motors, sourced in Brantford. Some harvester parts had to be found in the United States, some pulleys custom-made to adapt to the 12-inch rows of a Polish planter which allows significantly boosted plant-per-acre populations and lowered input costs, related to that reduced area.

Garlic fields are still opened up the old-fashioned way, in order to provide operational flexibility for the mechanical harvester.

“You have to leave enough room in the field for it to move and maneuver.”

The harvester has proven effective at speeds up to eight miles per hour, however Romaniuk says its operational sweet spot balancing productivity with product quality lies below that.

“A machine is only as good as its operator,” he added of the decision to anchor a specifically dedicated driver to its seat.

This year featured what undeniably was a challenging harvest season, amounts of rain and mud unprecedented in Romaniuk’s 43 years of experience. Even under these trying conditions, he called the harvester an unqualified success.

“Even this year, I would say it worked 100 per cent.”

Aesthetic sensibilities aside, economic advantages realized by a labour reduction from 30 to three translates into a beneficial payback period on the capital investment, and crucially, a predictable, viable and sustainable business model moving forward.

“I should have been doing this ten or 15 years ago,” Romaniuk concluded. “It opens up another avenue for Henry, and for me.” 

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