Researchers Develop Lower-Cost Options For Blueberry Harvest Assist Systems

The highbush blueberry industry continues to grow in this country, expanding to more than 61,000 acres in production. With this growth in production comes an increasing need for labor to maintain the bushes and harvest the fruit. As labor becomes more of a challenge for growers, a team of researchers is seeking mechanized solutions for this labor shortage.
Fueled by a $2.4 million USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; University of Florida; University of Georgia; Michigan State University; Mississippi State University; North Carolina State University; Oregon State University; Penn State University; Washington State University; and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) seek to provide lower cost options.

Researchers have already developed a sensor to measure the impact of harvesting on the tender fruit, and this project seeks to pair the sensor with research into cost-effective mechanized harvest options for small- and mid-size growers.

lower-cost-harvest-assist-system-berryImproving Ground Losses
“A highly efficient, affordable, intermediate harvesting system that could improve fruit quality and reduce ground loss would be welcomed by stakeholders of all farm sizes,” says Fumiomi Takeda, lead scientist at the USDA-ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, WV, who is a co-principal investigator on the project.

Takeda says the research team is focusing on semi-mechanical harvest systems aimed at mid- and small-sized growers as an alternative to the commercial over-the-row harvesters now available on the market, while still improving labor efficiencies. The team is looking at shake and catch systems that could harvest ripe fruit gently and minimize bruising so the fruit can have a longer fresh-market shelf life. Takeda says fruit harvested by traditional over-the-row harvesters is bruised and becomes soft which can reduce shelf life.

“Our research is concentrated in developing designs for fruit detachment equipment that can harvest ripe fruit more gently, designing fruit catching surfaces that will not bruise the fruit,” Takeda says. “Our approach to semi-mechanical harvesting is based on the integration of a self-propelled harvest platform with improved hand-held shakers and a novel berry catching system.”

He says the team is using the impact sensor to study how the shake and catch system impacts fruit so they can fine-tune the operating parameters and design features — vibration frequency, magnitude, and the shaker angle relative to the blueberry bush.

The Harvest Assist System
The team’s system is a moving platform pulled by a small tractor, or preferably self-propelled and self-steering — what he calls an “in-between” system. Workers stand on the platform with a shaker to “pick” ripe blueberries. The harvested fruit lands on soft catch plates and fruit collection surfaces and the conveyors transfer the fruit into lugs. With this system, the workers can focus on harvesting blueberries and let the machinery collect the harvested fruit and fill the lugs.

“In the last three years we used hand-held, air-powered shakers to remove fruit from the plant and a tractor-pulled fruit catching platform with modifications to reduce fruit bruising,” he says. “In 2017, we plan to have an agricultural equipment manufacturer build the project team a self-propelled, self-steering platform with a powered fruit-conveyance system and fruit-catching surface that will not bruise the fruit detached by semi-mechanical, hand-held shakers.”

Takeda says after research in the field this year and last, the team sees this new technology as quite promising. Workers do not need to make several steps — positioning, shaking, handling collection of the fruit, etc. He says the semi-automated harvest is 10- to 20 times faster than hand harvesting. The shakers used are tethered and counter-weighted on the system, which he says also helps reduce injuries and fatigue.

This easy harvester photographed at a demo in Oregon has been modified with tool-balancer as well as a softer fruit catching surface. It was towed by a small tractor. (Photo Credit: USDA-ARS)
This easy harvester photographed at a demo in Oregon has been modified with tool-balancer as well as a softer fruit catching surface. It was towed by a small tractor. (Photo Credit: USDA-ARS)

Ergonomics Of Harvesting
Andris Freivalds, an industrial engineering professor with Penn State is leading the ergonomic analysis of this harvesting system. So far, Freivalds’ team of engineers has conducted physiological analysis of workers operating the shaker, including muscle activity and heart rate. Measurements of muscle strain indicated shaker weight and vibration were critical factors to consider for worker comfort.

The light-weight shakers caused less muscle strain in the back, shoulders, and forearms. In field studies, a tool-support balancer showed positive effects and a shock-absorbing pad reduced the vibration caused by the pneumatic system. The team plans to include the modifications of shock-absorbing pads on the handles, as well as tethering shakers to platforms.

“The harvest aid system that is tethered to a tool balancer will definitely reduce fatigue because workers do not need to hold up the shaker all the time,” he says.

Another modification is a new berry-catch plate to cut losses. However, the ultimate goal of this project is to create a system that is scale neutral — so it can be appealing to small growers as well as to large growers through increases in high-quality yields and worker efficiency.

“The performance of our new harvesting platform will be appealing to large and small growers alike. Its cost will be substantially lower than a regular over-the-row harvesters, which can currently cost as much as $200,000,” Takeda says.

Improvements Over Current Systems
The research conducted so far points toward a mechanical harvesting system that has high harvesting efficiency and at the same time delivers fruit with little or no mechanical damage. Further development of sensor technologies will be useful for improving both the harvesting and packingline efficiency and blueberry quality.

Takeda says current over-the-row harvest systems can cause losses of anywhere from 20% to 30% due to bruised fruit. Takeda’s co-principal investigator, Charlie Li of the University of Georgia, is developing a non-invasive approach to detecting damaged fruit. The team is using a near-infrared hyperspectral imaging system.

In preliminary research, the team has been able to detect the amount of bruised tissues in individual blueberry fruit. Li says he is optimistic that with further improvements in efficiency and the accuracy, it can be used for on-the-line sorting of bruised blueberries.

Topics: , , ,

Leave a Reply

One comment on “Researchers Develop Lower-Cost Options For Blueberry Harvest Assist Systems

Berries Stories
Berries
April 26, 2017
Tips To Manage Winter-Damaged Blueberries
While low-chill varieties in Southern states may have experienced freeze damage for the second year in a row, giving those plants extra care will help ensure a good start to the 2018 growing season. Read More
The Hill family of Southern Hill Farms in Florida
Berries
April 13, 2017
Florida Farming Family Staying on Top of the Blueberry Game
The Hill family of Southern Hill Farms continues to up their efforts to diversify business and stay out ahead of a competitive market. Read More
Berries
April 10, 2017
North Carolina Blueberry Crop Still Kicking
Thanks to pruning cuts and a diverse mix of cultivars, the majority of the crop survived a series of March freezes. Read More
Closeup of Florida blueberries
Berries
April 6, 2017
Study Shows Bumblebees Can Boost Blueberry Yield Big Time
UF/IFAS researchers find placing hives of the distinct pollinator in the field pumps up output by 70%. Read More
Berries
March 30, 2017
Chateau Herbicide SW Now Registered for Use in Citrus, Caneberries
Broad spectrum preemergent herbicide to control broadleaf and grasses. Read More
SWD On Raspberry
Berries
March 26, 2017
Outsmarting SWD with Social Media
Entomologist in Kentucky uses social media for pest updates, trap catches. Read More
Freeze protected blueberry bushes in Florida
Berries
March 25, 2017
Florida Blueberry Crop Escapes Slap from Late-Season Cold Snap
Freeze protection tactics prove fruitful as local producers look to gain from Georgia’s loss. Read More
Frozen blueberries
Berries
March 15, 2017
Arctic Blast Gives Southern Fruit Growers the Chills
Peaches and berries in bloom most at risk from freezing temperatures. Read More
Growers boot up drone technology on the farm
Berries
March 3, 2017
Specialty Crops Primed for Precision Agriculture
Employing the latest horticultural technology tools could have substantial financial benefits for producers of hand-picked specialty crops, according to a new research paper. Read More
Berries
March 2, 2017
Pruning Pointers for Dormant Care of Berries
If you haven’t started pruning your berries, it’s time you do. Read More
Berries
February 26, 2017
Advantages to Growing Southern Highbush Blueberries
Growers in some regions where temperatures don’t get too low could consider the benefits of Southern highbush varieties. Read More
Berries
February 23, 2017
Primocane: A Major Innovation in Berry Production
I’ve witnessed the rise of primocane-fruiting blackberries, from first selections to integration in the market. Read More
2017 Florida Strawberry Picking Challenge winners
Berries
February 22, 2017
Florida Strawberry Picking Contest a Big Winner for Charity
Fourth-annual fundraising event brings in more than $100,000 to benefit children of local farmworkers. Read More
Registration area at the 2017 Florida Blueberry Growers Association Spring Meeting
Berries
February 17, 2017
Florida Blueberry Growers Counting on a Comeback
With last season's disaster in the rear view, all eyes are searching for bluer skies. Read More
Wish Farms mega strawberry donation
Berries
February 14, 2017
Wish Farms Shows Love With Super-Sized Strawberry Donation
More than 4,000 pounds of locally grown produce from Central Florida farming operation goes to help feed needy families in the Tampa area. Read More
The Latest
Berries
May 15, 2017
Grower Comments on Pyrethroids Being Sou…
Comment period on popular class of insecticides opens today. Read More
Berries
May 4, 2017
Florida Farming Pioneer Still Making the…
Alto Straughn presented with University of Florida’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. Read More
Berries
May 2, 2017
Southeastern Strawberry Growers Advised …
Recent rain is conducive to the main strawberry fruit rot diseases, according to the chief of the Southern Region IPM Center. Read More
Berries
April 26, 2017
Tips To Manage Winter-Damaged Blueberrie…
While low-chill varieties in Southern states may have experienced freeze damage for the second year in a row, giving those plants extra care will help ensure a good start to the 2018 growing season. Read More
Berries
April 13, 2017
Florida Farming Family Staying on Top of…
The Hill family of Southern Hill Farms continues to up their efforts to diversify business and stay out ahead of a competitive market. Read More
Berries
April 10, 2017
North Carolina Blueberry Crop Still Kick…
Thanks to pruning cuts and a diverse mix of cultivars, the majority of the crop survived a series of March freezes. Read More
Berries
April 6, 2017
Study Shows Bumblebees Can Boost Blueber…
UF/IFAS researchers find placing hives of the distinct pollinator in the field pumps up output by 70%. Read More
Berries
March 30, 2017
Chateau Herbicide SW Now Registered for …
Broad spectrum preemergent herbicide to control broadleaf and grasses. Read More
Berries
March 26, 2017
Outsmarting SWD with Social Media
Entomologist in Kentucky uses social media for pest updates, trap catches. Read More
Berries
March 25, 2017
Florida Blueberry Crop Escapes Slap from…
Freeze protection tactics prove fruitful as local producers look to gain from Georgia’s loss. Read More
Berries
March 15, 2017
Arctic Blast Gives Southern Fruit Grower…
Peaches and berries in bloom most at risk from freezing temperatures. Read More
Berries
March 3, 2017
Specialty Crops Primed for Precision Agr…
Employing the latest horticultural technology tools could have substantial financial benefits for producers of hand-picked specialty crops, according to a new research paper. Read More
Berries
March 2, 2017
Pruning Pointers for Dormant Care of Ber…
If you haven’t started pruning your berries, it’s time you do. Read More
Berries
February 26, 2017
Advantages to Growing Southern Highbush …
Growers in some regions where temperatures don’t get too low could consider the benefits of Southern highbush varieties. Read More
Berries
February 23, 2017
Primocane: A Major Innovation in Berry P…
I’ve witnessed the rise of primocane-fruiting blackberries, from first selections to integration in the market. Read More
Berries
February 22, 2017
Florida Strawberry Picking Contest a Big…
Fourth-annual fundraising event brings in more than $100,000 to benefit children of local farmworkers. Read More
Berries
February 17, 2017
Florida Blueberry Growers Counting on a …
With last season's disaster in the rear view, all eyes are searching for bluer skies. Read More
Berries
February 14, 2017
Wish Farms Shows Love With Super-Sized S…
More than 4,000 pounds of locally grown produce from Central Florida farming operation goes to help feed needy families in the Tampa area. Read More