Mechanical Blueberry Harvesting Can Save On Labor

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Labor Savers

As a grower, it’s important to examine inputs closely in order to increase your bottom line whenever possible. One of the greatest challenges growers say they face is labor. Not only can it be difficult to secure a quality labor force, but it can be one of the biggest costs in running a successful business. That’s why many growers are looking to mechanize their operations as much as possible.

Jerry Alamwala, a blueberry grower in Lyndon, WA, has been harvesting blueberries on his farm mechanically for about 10 years. Alamwala’s machines of choice are Korvans from Oxbo. He explains there are some things growers can do to get the most bang for their buck when it comes to mechanically harvesting. “Everything of ours is planted up on a bit of a mound or a hill in order to get (the plants) up higher off the ground so you can pick earlier on smaller plants,” he says. “We also trellis everything with wires so that everything stays up. And we try to prune the base of the plant so it has a narrow base and the capture plates aren’t opening up as wide.”

Pros And Cons

While some growers hesitate to harvest blueberries for the fresh market mechanically because of concerns about fruit quality and loss, Alamwala says he doesn’t find it problematic, and the benefits of harvesting mechanically outweigh the disadvantages significantly. “When you go out in the field and you watch a machine pick, if you’re not used to it the first time, it looks like you’re dropping a lot on the ground,” he says. “But if you weigh the cost of picking by hand against what you’re losing, it’s way better to pick by machine, especially with the prices we’re getting right now.”

He also notes that with the right varieties, you can harvest blueberries mechanically without much bruising or damage at all. In the Pacific Northwest, Duke is a variety that works particularly well.

Out East, Dave Yarborough of the University of Maine says that about 80% of the wild blueberry crop is mechanically harvested now. From an efficiency standpoint, it just makes sense, he says. “Now some of the machines are fitted with lights, and they’re working 24 hours,” he adds. “And certainly fruit quality is a lot greater with the cooler evenings — the fruit firm up.”

He points out, too, that ensuring machines are properly maintained is paramount, as is having someone skilled operate the machines. Otherwise, “they could dig up the soil or rip up plants,” he says.

For growers concerned about the cost of mechanical harvesters, Yarborough puts it this way: “It’s like anything else. You pay now or you pay later.” While the initial investment for a large machine could be as much as $30,000, what a grower will make up for in labor costs makes it worthwhile. On top of that, fruit loss between hand and mechanical harvesting is equivalent, he says, as long as the equipment is maintained. “I think it’s a really good option,” Yarborough says. “It’s the future. And for a lot of smaller growers, it’s really been a salvation for them, because they haven’t been able to get the labor.”

Ann-Marie Vazzano was managing editor of American Fruit Grower magazine, a Meister publication.