Harvesting and Handling Apples

Factsheet - ISSN 1198-712X   -   Copyright Queen's Printer for Ontario
Agdex#: 211/50
Publication Date: 03/00
Order#: 00-003
Last Reviewed: 08/09
History: Replaces Factsheet "Harvesting and Handling Apples" (Order No. 89-175)
Written by: Ken Wilson - Apple Specialist/OMAFRA

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Harvest Maturity
  3. Preparing the Orchard for Harvest
  4. Basket Versus Bag
  5. Ladders
  6. Training Pickers
  7. Proper Dress
  8. How to Pick
  9. Sorting in the Orchard
  10. Picking Crew
  11. Bruising
  12. Inspection of Fruit for Bruising
  13. Bruising on the Tree
  14. Piecework
  15. Frozen Apples
  16. Pruning to Facilitate Harvest
  17. Awareness
  18. Related Links


Growing apples profitably for today's market is a challenge. Growers must continue to enhance their management skills in order to improve their chances for success.

Many growers experience difficulty harvesting and handling the fruit. All too often poor harvesting and handling procedures nullify the expertise and hard work in producing quality fruit on the tree.

A grower's ability to successfully harvest and handle his/her fruit could be the difference between financial success and failure.

Harvest Maturity

Apples picked at the correct stage of maturity ripen and develop the full flavour and aroma of that particular cultivar. Unbruised, well-coloured large fruit of this quality is in high demand and will return premium prices.

The purpose for which you are picking the fruit determines the optimum picking maturity. Correct maturity is not only important for quality, but also for successful storage. Fruit for long-term controlled atmosphere and low oxygen storage is usually picked slightly less mature - to maximize storage success - than fruit destined for short-term storage. However, if fruit is picked too early (when it is still growing) you will sacrifice fruit size.

If an apple was a perfect sphere, an increase in diameter of ¼ in., from 2 3/8 to 2 5/8 inches, is an increase in volume of about 35%. In most cases, delaying picking for correct maturity translates directly into increased profits. Also, fruit picked early usually involves excessive spot picking, which is both inefficient and costly. This immature fruit bruises easily and is subject to scald and extreme shrivelling in storage. It may also be less coloured and be of poor eating and culinary quality.

On the other hand, fruit picked overmature can also have problems. This fruit is subject to senescent or old age breakdown, as well as other storage problems. With most cultivars there is also an increased chance of preharvest drop or even frost damage to the fruit.

There is a time limit to harvest all apple cultivars. Watch maturity closely and adjust your picking procedure to get the most quality fruit picked at the peak of perfection. To preserve this quality, immediately cool all harvested fruit.

The starch-iodine test helps grower's determine correct harvest maturity. This is a simple test showing the starch to sugar conversion as the fruit matures. For more information on this test consult OMAFRA Factsheets Evaluating Maturity of McIntosh and Red Delicious Apples (Order No. 00-025) and Evaluating Maturity of Empire, Idared and Spartan Apples (Order No. 00-027).

Preparing the Orchard for Harvest

Have the orchard floor in prime condition for harvest. Eliminate groundhogs and fill all burrows. Remove any brush on the ground or any obstacles that could trip a worker. Cut the grass short. This makes it easier to walk when it is wet, and easier to pick up juice apples. Smooth off or grade all orchard roads so the picked fruit can be transported without jostling or bouncing. Many growers have constructed level loading areas, strategically located in the orchard, to facilitate the gentle handling of full bins in any type of weather.

Basket Versus Bag

The picking basket is becoming obsolete in Ontario orchards. With no place to hang the basket in a modern size-controlled planting orchard, growers feel the basket encourages one-handed picking. Experience has shown picking bags are more efficient to use and, if properly handled, will not bruise the fruit as much as baskets (Figure 1). All picking bags are adjustable in order to fit the build and strength of the picker. The picker is free to use both hands to pick and to gently set the fruit in the bag. the top of the fruit in the bin, setting the picked fruit gently on top.

Three figures in total to show how to empty a picking bank of apples into a bin.

Figure 1. It is not difficult to empty a picking bag properly. First, position the full picking bag just above the fruit in the bin. Next, release the closing apparatus to open the bottom of the bag. Rest it on the fruit in the bin. Then, slowly lift the bag, while carefully drawing it over the top of the bin. The picked fruit is gently placed on top.

If necessary this single layer can be easily inspected, with little disturbance to the fruit. If properly done, there should be minimal, if any fruit injury.


Both economic studies and first hand experience of growers attest to the added picking costs incurred when using ladders. In orchards where ladders must be used, prune the tree in such a way as to have an opening to effectively place a ladder. Secure the ladder, allowing the picker access to the maximum amount of fruit without moving the ladder.

Make sure the ladder is lightweight and strong. For convenience, avoid excessive length and train all ladder workers to safely handle a ladder before use. Ask only worker's comfortable with climbing to use a ladder. It has been said that every step a picker makes above the third rung on a ladder result in a 10% decrease in efficiency when compared to a picker standing on the ground. With this in mind, avoid excessive tree height. Similarly, hard to reach limbs might just as well not be picked; better yet, remove at pruning time. Taking the time to climb into high and difficult locations for a few apples is not economical.

Training Pickers

Without guidance, few people have the knack to be top quality pickers. Some people do not have the physical ability or mental awareness to be a good picker. It is best to give them jobs more suited to ability. Train pickers yearly, so they are effective and efficient with the harvesting system you use. An experienced picker trained by one grower may have habits that will not agree with another grower's system. A picker will only be as good as the grower's ability to show him or her what to do.

Proper Dress

Proper footwear is important for protection and comfort. Use rubber boots on wet and muddy days; work boots on dry days. A change of shoes for the day should be available in case of a weather change or tired feet (Figure 2). Discourage the wearing of flimsy street shoes. For clothing, the layered approach works well. Clothing can be shed or added as conditions change during the day. Sweaters are a poor choice as they become easily snagged in the trees.

It is the grower's responsibility to supply rain gear. This gives you control over when the rain gear is to be worn. Rain gear is too expensive to wear continually as it will get ripped or snagged.

Remember, worker comfort is important to productivity. If a worker is not comfortable, he or she will not work to full potential. Do not expect pickers to work in wet conditions that you would not work in. If picking must be done in the rain or other adverse conditions, a dry and warm place for lunch and breaks are well-appreciated gestures that make working conditions more tolerable.

How To Pick

Never allow the pickers to just pull the fruit off the tree. This method disturbs the tree, usually causing other fruit to fall and can lead to significant bruising. This method can also result in fruit spurs being removed with the apples, reducing next year's crop potential.

One of the easiest picking techniques to teach is the "rolling method". Using this method the apple is gently turned upside down on the spur. If the fruit is ready to pick it usually separates easily without disturbing other apples or the fruit spur. With a hard to pick cultivar like Northern Spy, the thumb or another finger is often placed between the apple stem and the spur as the apple is rolled upwards. Set all apples carefully in the picking container. Do not drop the fruit or jostle the container. Fruit hitting other fruit, or hitting the side of the container, causes bruising. Handle apples like you would eggs. People with large hands and/or long fingers may eventually be able to remove two apples at a time per hand. Do not encourage this practice until they master picking individual fruits bruise-free.

Bins of fruit with leaves and spurs present are suspect of containing fruit of poor quality. Supervise all help by setting an example and working with them. A good grower will never ask the pickers to do something he or she cannot. Teach by example, not by lecture. Show them exactly how to do the job efficiently and effectively.

Image of person with picking bag picking apples.

Figure 2. A properly dressed picker should be comfortable and safe at all times. Proper footwear is a major factor in picker safety.

Sorting in the Orchard

Economical growers do the absolute minimum of sorting once the fruit is in the bin. They have trained pickers to pick only marketable fruit and to avoid the inferior fruit or drop it on the ground. Sorting in the bins in the orchard is both inefficient and costly and can increase bruising tremendously.

If sorting must be done, do so as the apples are being placed in the bin. A properly emptied picking bag will leave a single layer of apples that can be easily inspected with minimal handling. Another practice that works well is using a 1 m x 1 m sheet of plastic, air bubble packing, (the kind used to ship delicate items to prevent breakage). When spread over the fruit in a bin it serves as a cushion to sort on, reducing bruising and separates the fruit to be sorted from those already inspected. The fruit can be gently rolled off after sorting, by carefully lifting one side of the sheet. This air bubble material has the advantage over most other products because it does not absorb water from wet fruit or rain and has superior cushioning properties.

Picking Crew

Small harvest crews, made up of no more than 10-12 persons, are the most efficient. Crews beyond this size make extra work for themselves by being in each other's way or by spreading out over a large area. Keep the distance from the point of picking on the tree to where the bins are being filled to a minimum. Time is money, and as the old adage states, "if they are walking, they are not picking". To further reduce time loss, some growers move a portable privy along with the picking crew. A small manageable crew is easier to supervise for quality and productivity. It is more efficient to have multiple, well-supervised crews backed by adequate bin handlers than a few huge crews that are difficult to service.


Bruising is the major reason fruit is culled from Ontario packing lines. Recent studies at harvest indicate bruising can come from a source other than rough picking. One of the most significant sources was directly related to the bulk handling of the full bins by forklift and truck.

Even the best quality bins will flex, and as they flex the fruit is disturbed and pressures the adjacent fruit. The more times a bin is moved during and after filling the greater the incidence of bruising. This type of bruising damage is further accentuated if the bins are repeatedly set on uneven surfaces. There is also an increased chance of bruising fruit with the use of flexible sleds where the bins are pulled along the ground during picking. The more uneven the orchard floor or the greater the distance the fruit sled is pulled, the greater the pressure bruising occurs.

A multiple bin carrier (Figure 3) is a good way to reduce bruising. The bins are filled on the carrier (Figure 4) in the orchard rows and when full, are moved carefully and set on a flat surface. From this location the bins will only be lifted once as they are moved to storage.

Image of bin carrier with bins raised in transit position.

Figure 3. This multiple bin carrier is in the raised transit position which offers maximum fruit protection from bruising when the fruit is moved in the orchard.

Image of bin carrier with back bin lowered.

Figure 4. To reduce bruising, fill bulk bins while resting on most multiple bin carriers. The tail of the carrier has been lowered to the ground to facilitate filling.

Use only the best quality bins for fresh fruit. Sort bins and use the weaker, more flexible bins for juice apples. Today's preference is for a bin made from quality exterior grade spruce or fir plywood. The 5-ply layer sides are 15 mm (5/8 in.) thick. The bottoms made of 6 or more ply layers is 18.5 mm (3/4 in.) thick. Select grade sheeting is normally used so the interior surface of the bin does not have any knot holes.

Poor quality bins, unsatisfactory bin handling equipment, or careless operators, will result in tremendous fruit losses due to bruising. The efforts of a well-supervised picking crew to control orchard bruising can be nullified by one careless move on route to the storage.

Inspection of Fruit for Bruising

A bruise on an apple is not immediately evident after the bruise is made. It may take as long as one day before the total effect and severity can be evaluated. To assess the amount of bruising caused at harvest by the picking crew, leave a bin undisturbed exactly where it was filled. Come back in one day and carefully inspect the fruit one layer at a time. If there is a problem, it will be evident then. If the problem is a picker, try to correct the situation with extra training. If the situation persists, that picker needs another job.

To check for bruises that have occurred during transit, again wait one day after transit before inspecting the fruit. It's a good idea when sending fruit through commercial packing operations to request that some fruit be packed at the start of picking. The packing line will report the result of the trial and should a problem exist it can be corrected at the start of harvest. A little co-operation between grower and packer in these matters will help to maintain the high standards of apples grown and packed in Ontario.

Bruising on the Tree

Pre-harvest drop is the name given to the condition when sound fruit falls from the tree just before or during early harvest. McIntosh is a cultivar prone to pre-harvest drop. Apart from the obvious problem of good quality apples hitting the ground, these falling apples drop through the tree canopy, hit fruit hanging lower on the tree, causing heavy bruising. To reduce this type of injury, pre-harvest drop must be held to a minimum.

Maintaining adequate tree nutrition and the judicious use of stop-drop sprays can substantially reduce pre-harvest drop. Similarly, when picking larger trees pick the lower limbs first so if a few fruits fall when the top limbs are picked there will be no additional losses due to bruising of lower fruit.


Piecework does have a place in today's harvest of apples. The piecework rate is always adjustable and is commonly set so those pickers with above-average performance are rewarded for their efforts. It is common to have juice and processing apples picked up on a piecework basis. However, the successful picking of high quality fresh fruit is very difficult on a piecework basis, since piecework encourages speed that all too often increases fruit bruising. Strict supervision is needed for piecework. A grower must never allow the quality of the picked fruit to drop for the sake of speed.

Frozen Apples

In Ontario there is always a chance of frost during apple harvest. If frost occurs during harvest do not touch or move that fruit until the frost has left the apple. If fruit has been touched (picked), or rubbed by limbs, or other fruit while frozen, the areas of contact will be damaged under the skin.

If frost is imminent, harvest as much fruit as possible and ensure that all harvested fruit is placed under heated cover. Apples that remain on the tree recover from freezing more completely than harvested fruit. Fruit on the tree may undergo several freezings with little injury. Harvested apples seldom recover from even one freeze.

The freezing point of apples is approximately -2ºC. However, the fruit will not freeze until it is at, or below, the freezing point for some time. The greater the number of freezings, or the longer the freeze period, the more likely the fruit is to be injured and to breakdown in storage. Freezing is likely to increase the number of fruit with symptoms of senescence or old age, because freezing increases the rate of ripening.

Should the fruit freeze, it will have a hard, glossy appearance, wrinkled skin, and a purplish discoloration of the red side of the apple. Frozen fruit can have a fermented off-flavour and also be considerably softer. Severely frozen areas of the fruit will be brownish, and probably mushy if a large area is affected. If a grower is not sure whether the fruit is frozen, do not begin picking until air temperatures have increased and all threat of persistent frost is gone.

Fruit subjected to frost is best packed and sold, not stored. Frozen fruit ripens more quickly and the storage life is shorter and the fruit may be subject to a higher than normal incidence of breakdown and decay. If the fruit is suspected of having been exposed to frost, at harvest, be sure to inspect the fruit periodically, by removing a few apples from storage and leaving them to age at room temperature for a week. If the fruit shows signs of breakdown when cut open, it should be marketed immediately. Never risk storing frozen apples in controlled atmosphere or low oxygen storage.

Pruning to Facilitate Harvest

There are many reasons why orchards should be effectively pruned annually. One reason that receives little attention is the profound effect that pruning can have upon the ease of harvesting. Before pruning, think of the previous harvest. What was the fruit like? What were the picking problems? Can these problems be reduced with a change in pruning practices? Pruning is the time to adjust the physical shape of the tree to ensure both quality and efficiency at harvest next year. Proper tree pruning and maintenance cannot be over emphasized. It is much easier and more economical to pick quality fruit, free of insects and disease, from well opened up trees.


From the standpoint of future economic survival, all apple growers must learn to harvest efficiently, and to preserve quality. A grower should be a keen observer and be personally aware of his/her total harvesting and handling system. Leave nothing to chance or to the judgement of others.

Most apple growers are aware of the present high marketing standards and can produce quality fruit, but the most successful growers will be those who can maintain that quality throughout the harvesting and handling period. Theirs will be the fruit that is in greatest demand.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca