Mechanical Harvesting Update

Preview of Speakers’ Presentations at the Upcoming FBGA Fall Meeting and Trade Show

Over the past 30 years, blueberry production has grown by leaps and bounds.  However, current methods of hand-picking berries for the fresh market have resulted in bottlenecks in terms of sustainable production.  More growers are looking at the benefits of mechanical harvesting in order to increase their yields throughout the season.  Historically, one of the main problems with machine harvesting is the bruising of the fruit caused by the berries falling into the collecting trays.  Another issue has been ground loss of berries due to them not falling into the trays.  Researchers are taking these problems into consideration and devising new harvesting techniques to help reduce bruising and loss.

This year’s Florida Blueberry Growers Association (FBGA) Fall Meeting and Trade Show, which is being held on October 26 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., will highlight the recent advances in mechanical harvesting with three knowledgeable speakers.  Dr. Fumi Takeda will be joining attendees from the USDA Agricultural Research Service; Bill Cline, a horticulturalist crops research specialist from North Carolina State will also be presenting on this topic; and Patricio Munoz, a University of Florida blueberry breeder will be providing an update that touches on this timely subject as well.  These researchers will shed light on the newest and most effective means of harvesting blueberries mechanically, showing growers how to make the most of current technology while presenting future possibilities.

Dr. Fumi Takeda is working on new machines for mechanical harvesting.  The machines currently in use in growers’ fields are not suitable for picking berries for the fresh market, as they cause a great deal of bruising.  This has been especially damaging for berries that need to be in cold storage as they are shipped.  Hand picking has been necessary to maintain the quality of the fruit.  Machine picked fruits have to make it to the consumer within a few days, or used for processed blueberry products.

“We’re developing machines that can harvest blueberries and have a level of quality so that the fruit could be cold-stored for at least two weeks, and still look as good as hand-harvested fruit,” Dr. Takeda states.  This type of innovation has the potential to save growers money on labor costs while making more fresh fruit available longer.

The new design features include a fruit catching surface that will not damage the fruit nearly as much as the more traditional machines.  Berries are picked from the bushes using rods, and then fall three or four feet.  Dr. Takeda’s team has data to show that their softer surfaces reduce the impact of the berries and therefore bruising.  Hand-held shaking devices are also being studied.  Meadowlark and Farthing varieties were tested with these new techniques with pleasing results.  Dr. Takeda will be sharing his findings at the FBGA Fall Meeting and Trade Show.

These shaking machines will fit well within the standard 11-foot rows currently used by most growers in their fields.  There is some pruning necessary for the new machines to work at maximum efficiency.  Blueberry shrubs should be small at the base and trained in an upright growth pattern in order to reduce ground loss.  Machine harvesting untrained, unpruned plants can result in ground loss for the crop of 20 to 30 percent.

North Carolina was one of the first states to begin using machine harvesting for the fresh market, and Bill Cline will be discussing that at the fall show.  A cultivar was used that was not the most productive, but worked very well with the machines.  Mr. Cline has watched the process evolve since the 1990s, as the machines have become gentler and the cultivars used have increased in quality.  He has seen the machines change from a sway or “slapper” style to those that use the finger-like rods to comb the berries from the bush.

One aspect that Mr. Cline points out is that it is important to have a packing shed in place in order to separate out the green fruit from the blue, as well as something to sort out the soft fruit.  This could be a major hurtle for small growers.  Also, high density planting may need to be transitioned to a wider row spacing in order to make use of the mechanical harvesters.

Although there is an initial cost to purchase the new equipment, it is expected to greatly decrease the cost of labor in the fields.  As any grower will tell you, hand-picking is one of the biggest expenses farmers face.  These machines range in price, but eliminating the cost of hand-picking will decrease the overall expense of harvesting.  Mr. Cline estimates the investment for a pull-behind machine at $75 to $80 thousand, and for a self-propelled machine at about $150 to $180 thousand, and this does not include the packing line for sorting out the green and soft berries.

The major drawback to using machines over hand-picking is that the best price for fresh berries will come early in the season, when there are not enough berries on the bushes to make machine harvesting feasible.  Some farmers prefer to go into the fields early to hand-pick in order to get those early berries to market.

Overall, mechanical harvesting of blueberries has come a long way in the last 20 years, and new developments are still being made.  This year’s Florida Blueberry Growers Association Fall 2017 Meeting and Trade Show is sure to be ripe with fresh information on the innovations in this industry.


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