President’s Letter: So You Want to Mechanical Harvest?

The first thing to do is ask yourself: Is it a tactical or strategic decision? For many growersmachine harvesting can bea useful tactic to extend the season or do final cleanup after the pick crew moves on. It’s an ideal way to evaluate whether it might fit into your long-term plans. As a strategy, where most or all of the fruit is to be machine-harvested, you need to make a serious commitment to plan all the details then devote considerable resources to build the enabling farm infrastructure.

For our farm it was a strategic decision. From our start in 2014, we made the financial and management commitment to design and construct the Frogmore Fresh Farm to maximize the likelihood of successfully harvesting by machine. Here are some of the key attributes we did our best to incorporate into the farm before we drilled our first well.

  • Variety selection was paramount. Although there is no Holy Grail variety as of yet, a few current ones are quite good and some more are workable.

  • Bed design and construction with at least 10-foot row spacing was a must. Every row must be GPS straight and placement of all above-ground irrigation must accommodate machine requirements. 

  • Bush training with cartons, canes and pruning started with the planting process.

  • Harvester selection was a critical decision. Picking performance, safety, logistical productivity, reliability, service and parts were just some of the key criteria.

  • Perseverance and patience were as important as any attribute to keep us on course to create a maturing machinable farm. 

Even the best machine-capable farm faces a myriad of challenges. We’ve learned a lot along the way and are constantly adapting our processes to overcome unforeseen problems or mistakes. Some challenges we have encountered:

  • Up to now, the biggest challenge is we do not 100% machine harvest. As a result, we must manage interleaving hand and machine picking. Besides the logistical complexity of two systems, it is a human relations sticky wicket with hand pickers naturally motivated to compete with the machines. 

  • We have to accept the large loss of fruit we toiled all year to bring to harvest… either left on the ground or the bush, or graded into the dumpster at the pack shed. It is an intellectual exercise to commit to machine harvesting, but we believe as we press ahead and constantly improve our processes we will greatly reduce this negative. 

  • Machining is not as agile as hand picking in response to inclement weather or crop changes during harvest. It’s harder to recover from rain events that swell fruit and cause splits if picking by machine.

  • Staffing, and just managing the machine process, can be a stressful task, especially on top of a daytime hand crew.  Early season we can pick during the day, but when temps get into the upper 80s and 90s, most of the shifts start as the sun is setting and go till dewfall — sometimes quickly before 10 p.m., sometimes dragging into the early morning hours.   

  • Machines can be quite destructive to blueberry plants, their beds and the irrigation system. We have to accept a rate of attrition every year and the cost to repair damages.  We also learned that, if you don’t give plenty of room to make 180 degree turns, your operators will eventually shorten the beds and make the room. 

  • We have to add extra cultural activities to the growing schedule to prepare for the machines. Some tasks are pruning annual sucker growth, installing protection for replants and perfecting row middles to make the harvester travel-ways as smooth as possible.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea; we work on the machine harvesting process all 12 months of the year.

Are you a grower approaching machine harvesting tactically? If so, you still have to keep issues like these in mind, plus deal with the legacy investment of a farm established for hand picking. Plant density may be too tight for larger machines like our Oxbo 7420.  Varieties good for our Florida window, like Jewel and Springhigh, don’t lend themselves to the rigors of machining, particularly when the heat arrives. Then there’s the challenge of bushy mature plants never properly trained, beginning at planting, to enhance the performance of the harvester.  

Even so, incorporating machine harvesting into your operation may make sense.  When we started out there was very little machine harvesting in Florida.  Now there are several quality machine harvest contractors in our region you can contact to see if they can help your operation.  And as you evolve your fields with new plantings you might want to consider making them machine compatible.  Hand crews can pick just as well in a machinable field as one designed just for hand picking.

Machine harvesting has certainly been a journey for us, but the technology and the techniques to enhance it are just lifting off. New and better machines are coming. New and better varieties are coming.  New and better plant growing methods are coming. There will be less loss, better quality and, thank goodness,  lower costs. Our customers will delight in Florida’s long-lasting super-tasty fruit… and our farms will enjoy a long-lasting prosperous future.

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