Opinion: looking to the future of machine harvesting blueberries

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Opinion: looking to the future of machine harvesting blueberries

By Fall Creek Farm & Nursery manager Cort Brazelton

Mechanically harvesting blueberries is clearly the lowest cost method to pick fruit. Traditionally, regions known for using machines to harvest have been the highbush growing areas of the Pacific Northwest, Michigan and New Jersey and in the Southeastern United States where Rabbiteyes are grown, along with the Netherlands in Europe. Increasingly, growers around the world are considering machine harvest and are seeking to understand if it can be viable for fresh market sales.

Utilizing machine harvesters for fruit sold in fresh markets has been occasionally feasible in some scenarios, but requires very specific conditions. Varieties must have concentrated ripening, unique firmness and high quality fruit. Varieties most talked about for machine harvest fresh in the Pacific Northwest have been Duke and Draper, and in the Southeast United States, a short list of Rabbiteyes.

Ideally, the bush itself should have a narrow base and an upright growth habit to accommodate the equipment and catcher plates during harvest. Often growers must make an investment in trellising to keep canes, heavy with fruit, above the catcher plates. The weather and climate must be conducive to machine harvesting as well with cool, dry conditions and no dew – this variable is always in flux.

Fields need to be designed to accommodate large machine harvesters so that there is enough room at headlands to turn around and also transfer fruit to other vehicles.  Most importantly, the market destination for the fruit must be close to the harvest location – less than a one-day truck ride. The reality is that machine harvesting for fresh is only an option today for growers who have very short farm to market transport times.

Currently the percentage of the fresh blueberry crop worldwide that is harvested by machine is small – likely less than 5% and is nearly always done in farming operations with markets in close proximity. In some areas abroad, such as Argentina, Chile, South Africa and in some regions of North America that are some distance from the consuming areas, machine harvesting is most often only used as a tool to clean-up fields after fresh hand-harvest is complete.

Often these fields were not designed, let alone intended for machine harvesting or planted with appropriate varieties.  Although machine harvesting can be a central tool to controlling costs, machine harvesting for fresh markets on a large scale worldwide is still off in the future.

Necessity is the mother of invention

In most of the production regions the shortage of labor is driving growers to look at ways to more cost-effectively harvest crops.  In some regions of the U.S., particularly in the Southeastern states, there is growing fervor to evaluate machine harvestability of new and existing varieties, and to learn new growing and management systems.

There is also a push to incorporate improved equipment options to realize their strong desire to insulate themselves from labor issues, lower costs to address downward pressure on pricing, compete with other grower regions with similar production windows, and ensure they are able to get all of their crop picked.

One thing seems to be clear - the labor situation will not improve. The outcry is being heard at the highest levels. The USHBC (United States Highbush Blueberry Council) has assembled a special task force to study and address the growing needs for machine harvest technologies.

There is a universal desire in the industry for a definitive and reliable system allowing a shift to machine harvest for the global fresh blueberry market. As they say, "the devil is in the details". How do we as an industry get to a place where machine harvesting for fresh markets is consistently acceptable?  There is no single quick fix but rather a need for an alignment of multiple factors.

Leading breeding programs, public (universities) and private, are focused on developing varieties that are more suitable to both fresh and processed machine harvesting. The principal manufactures of machine harvesters are diligently working toward innovations in new products, and some with interesting potential are beginning to enter the market. The leading packing equipment companies are keenly aware of the need to continually improve equipment, processes and handling systems that minimize t negative impact on fruit quality.

There is room for big advances in all of these key areas, but it will take time. Breeders, engineers and equipment manufacturers, along with growers and handlers must all do their part. A move towards machine harvesting is being driven by necessity.

So what can we expect?

Looking forward, it is reasonable to believe that machine harvesting will first play a larger and growing role in the harvest of blueberries destined for fresh markets close to home in North America and Western Europe.

For fresh blueberry growers in geographies more distant from the market, machine harvesting for fresh markets is likely further off in the future. On the processed side of the business, with the exception of sort-outs from fresh harvests, it will be increasingly more challenging to compete without the right systems and varieties developed specifically for machine harvest.

Here are the questions growers must ask themselves as they look to the future of their growing operations:

- Should I consider designing my field to be ready for a machine harvest reality whether I grow for fresh or processed markets?

- Am I aware and informed of the best technologies for mechanical harvest and post-harvest systems?

- Am I accessing the absolute best varieties for my needs and the needs of my markets now and in the future?

Machine harvesting won’t solve all of our industry’s challenges. To remain profitable and competitive, growers must examine opportunities for improvement at all levels of their operations from genetics, agronomy, harvest,  packing and cooling systems, food safety, storage, and logistics.

The direction of the blueberry industry is clear – varieties must yield more, large, firm, tasty fruit that is well-suited to machine harvest for fresh and process markets. Growers must be prepared, willing to invest and able to adopt new tools, systems and innovations as our industry evolves. Seizing the opportunities in blueberries to integrate mechanization without losing a tenacious focus on product quality will be crucial for anyone trying to stay ahead of the curve in the crop.


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