As labor continues to be a challenge for blueberry growers, there has been an increasing interest in machine harvesting in fresh markets. However, what may seem like a quick fix to a large problem has presented difficulties of its own, according to Jeff Williamson, Extension horticulturist with the University of Florida.
Traditionally, blueberries are hand picked. It is no secret that finding the hands to pick the blueberries has been an increasing challenge for these growers, and in turn, picking is the grower’s largest production cost. Now, mechanical harvesters are being researched and tested in Florida and other blueberry-producing states.
Williamson says mechanized harvesting, although quick, can be rough on the crop. The plants can be injured by the mechanical harvester. Also, Williamson has found bruising on the fruit caused by the mechanical harvester. When the fruit bruises it lowers the quality of the produce, making it more difficult to sell. “It (mechanical harvesting) is a rough ride compared to hand picking, no matter which way you look at it,” Williamson says.
Mechanized harvesting presents more challenges besides just bruising. Since the machine is still being tested, it is not perfect. Williamson says it can cause some fruit drop during harvest. He says researchers are testing catch plates to try to save some of the produce. The catch plates are placed at the base of the plant and catch the blueberries before they hit the ground and become unsellable. Williamson adds that researchers are also testing different pruning techniques to see if that can reduce fruit drop due to mechanized harvesting.
Williamson mentions another challenge for mechanical harvesting: The machine cannot differentiate between mature fruit and immature fruit, so it harvests everything, leaving the grower with mass amounts of immature fruit in the buckets.
Moreover, Williamson says the mechanical harvesters have trouble with varieties that grow the berries in tight clusters. Williamson recommends staying away from those types of varieties if a grower is thinking about using mechanical harvesting. For example, Williamson says that Chickadee™ may be a good candidate for mechanized harvesting down the road due to its looser clusters.
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