Nova Scotia

Electronic apple scanner transforming Nova Scotia's apple industry

A new hand-held device in Nova Scotia orchards is telling farmers when an apple is perfect for picking.

Device tells you when it's ripe while it's still on the tree, cutting waste and improving quality

The meter reads apples on the trees and tells you when it's time to pick. (CBC)

A new, hand-held device reminiscent of Star Trek's tricorder scanning device is telling Nova Scotian farmers when an apple is perfect for picking.

The results are already transforming the province's apple industry.

"What this is doing is allowing us to come in and pick these at just the right time, so that when we bring these out of storage in a few months, they are just as good, just as fresh, as the day we picked them in the orchard," said Tim Stirling as he stands beside a bin of Honeycrisp apples at Stirling Mountainside Farms, near Centreville in the Annapolis Valley.

In his hand is a delta absorbance, or DA Meter. The Italian-made instrument is a bit bigger than a smartphone. It costs about $5,000, but it's worth it according to Stirling, one of four Nova Scotia growers using the gadget.

How it works and why it matters 

Pulses of light reveal the peel's chlorophyl content — a measure of ripeness — without breaking the skin.

The DA Meter shows users the ripening stage of an apple while it's still on the tree and lets growers pick a single tree multiple times. Once harvested, a DA Meter reading can tell whether that crop is suitable for long-term storage.

In the case of Nova Scotia's most valuable variety, the Honeycrisp, picking a crop capable of long-term storage can be worth hundreds of dollars for every standard 362 kilogram bin. ​Stirling says getting it right can cut wastage by 50 per cent. 

"We are able to maximize the dollar on the tree, maximize your dollar in the bin and maximize your return," he said.

This year, the meter readings advanced the harvest of one crop by four days from the year before.

"This was telling us you need to get in there and you pick that crop now. And that's just what it did for my Jonagolds," he said.

He shares his findings with other growers. "I call Scotian Gold and tell them where I'm at and they are able to inform other growers around the Valley," said Stirling.

Now part of gate check at warehouse

At the nearby Scotian Gold Co-Operative in Coldbrook, technician Joan Hebb is at the gatehouse armed with a DA Meter for the first time, checking every apple shipment that arrives.

The Co-operative stores and packs half of the 1.8 million bushels of apples produced annually in Nova Scotia. It's estimated ths year Nova Scotia will produce 325,000 bushels of Honeycrisp apples. The Co-operative has two DA Meters.

Picking the apples at the right time is better for customers and growers. (CBC)

Hebb decides which apples need to be sold soon and which can survive longer.

"If it goes into long-term storage, we have the advantage of being able to keep that fruit until the price in the marketplace comes up so it makes that fruit more valuable," she said.

Hebb was part of the Agriculture Agri Food Canada research team in Kentville that spent three years adapting the Italian-made DA Meter for use on Honeycrisps in Nova Scotia. "It's amazing. I'm so excited. To spend all those years and to apply it to real life? It's fascinating."

Could it work for grapes?

Lead scientist John DeLong says researchers tested thousands of apples before they were satisfied with the correlation.

His lab is now testing the device for crops like Ambrosia, Jonagold, Gala and Cortland. They're also looking at using it in vineyards. 

"It's a way for grape growers to look at [the] fruit and ask the questions — are these clusters ready for harvest? — and to do so quickly," he said.

The tool can reduce wastage by 50 per cent. (CBC)


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.