New Technology Helps To Solve The Berry Mechanization Challenge

The BIRD device can measure the impact of harvesting and transport on soft fruit. Researchers hope to  use these sensors as new harvesting equipment is developed. (Photo credit: Charlie Li)
The BIRD device can measure the impact of harvesting and transport on soft fruit. Researchers hope to use these sensors as new harvesting equipment is developed. (Photo credit: Charlie Li)

Research Might Pay Off Hugely
Another stumbling block to growers initiating mechanical harvesting of berries is the price of equipment. Part of Takeda and Li’s research is also developing affordable harvest aid equipment.

Li and Takeda are among a group of researchers developing an affordable harvest-aid system and sensor technologies with the help of a SCRI grant. Li and Takeda are taking a multi-disciplinary approach to improving harvest efficiency and postharvest handling of fresh blueberries.

Takeda says the team wants to develop “an affordable self-propelled harvest aid system with ergonomic design that can improve harvesting efficiency more than 10 times compared with hand picking, with better fruit quality, and reduced ground loss (of fruit).”

Paring this new harvest-aid technology with a second- or third-generation BIRD device, researchers and growers will be able to better understand the stress fresh blueberries undergo with these new harvest devices.

Takeda and Li hope this research will reduce harvesting fatigue, ground losses of fruit, and fruit damage, and above all, be affordable for all growers. The research team is also studying genotypes of blueberry varieties to find the best cultivars suitable for semi-mechanical harvesting.

“This has been addressed partially with the recent development of novel highbush blueberry cultivars with crisp-textured (“crispy”) berries, i.e., fruit with qualitatively firmer flesh and/or more resistant skin,” Takeda says.
Takeda says microbial contamination is another concern for growers and consumers.

“We will investigate the potential microbial contamination in both blueberry fruit and mechanical harvesters and determine critical control points along the harvest and postharvest chain,” Takeda says.

Grower Driven
The objectives of this project were identified and developed with input from blueberry growers, packinghouse operators, equipment manufacturers, and Extension agents, Takeda says. In fact, in a recent producer survey, the goals were affirmed.

“Reducing labor and harvest cost is one of the most pressing issues facing blueberry growers, and growers are eager to adopt new harvesting technologies that can reduce cost, improve efficiency and fruit quality, and reduce the fruit losses,” Takeda says.

Ultimately, Li says these projects can’t be successful without grower and equipment manufacturer cooperation. These developments are designed to help the highbush blueberry industry become more sustainable and profitable, he says.

“We strongly encourage growers to be more engaged in the project through workshops and field day demonstrations. We appreciate the support from the growers and we need their continued support,” Li says. “That is the strongest motivation for us to do good work.”

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