VIRGINIA BEACH -- It looked like any other piece of farm machinery. But to Steve Walls, the big green experimental cucumber picker went beyond the more than 1,000 hours of engineering he put into it.

"First, we've developed a product that is needed. Second, we've put a man back in business. Third, we're going to provide more jobs for Virginians, and fourth, we're helping the growers by decreasing their costs," he said last week.

Wall, an assistant professor of mechanical technology at Old Dominion University, was called in to help when Eastern Shore farmer Jim Harrison ran out of money and expertise this February.

For more than seven years, Harrison had been trying to perfect a mechanical picker that he said would revolutionize the table cucumber market.

Harrison sought the assistance of the Entrepreneurial Center at Old Dominion. The center, seeing that engineering was part of the problem, referred him to the Engineering Clinic at the Peninsula Graduate Center, where he teamed up with Wells.

Through the Center for Innovative Technology, Old Dominion got $18,272 to refine Harrison's basic design into a workable and marketable machine.

When he first began tinkering with mechanical harvesting in 1979, Harrison used a potato picker. He filled a pickup truck in 15 minutes with mashed and bruised cucumbers and, "it took us five hours to clear the vines out of the machine."

Last week, during a demonstration for growers and buyers, Harrison's machine was pulled by a tractor up and down the rows of closely planted cukes. Vines came out the back and whole, undamaged cucumbers rolled up a conveyor belt and into a truck.

The new Harrison Harvester was not without its problems. Minor glitches in the hydraulic system slowed the process, but Harrison and Wells were optimistic that could be solved by a new pump and better engineering.

Harrison and Wells believe the machine will fill a niche in the farm industry where the table cucumber crop is picked by hand.

According to Wells' projections, the mechanical harvester would nearly halve the grower's cost per acre while doubling yield by allowing cucumbers to be planted more closely together.

Ernest J. Cross, dean of the Old Dominion College of Engineering and Technology, said the school will patent the design and Harrison will retain the licensing rights.

The school may also be paid a royalty or get equity in any company formed to manufacture the harvester, Cross said.