Should You Machine Harvest?

As labor costs and availability, regulatory issues, and margins continue to pose challenges, blueberry growers are increasingly looking at machine harvest options for the fresh market. Machine harvesting blueberries for processed markets is well-established. For those considering a move to fresh machine harvesting, there are some critical points to consider.

Develop A Plan

Dave Brazelton is a blueberry industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience. As president of Fall Creek Farm & Nursery, Inc., the world’s largest blueberry nursery stock producer, Brazelton has spent years advising commercial blueberry growers globally on all aspects of blueberry farming. He notes that he and his grower representatives receive questions daily about machine harvesting blueberries for fresh market.

Brazelton cautions that to be successful with machine harvesting blueberries, growers must develop a comprehensive plan that considers critical issues from all stages, including variety selection, planting, growing, harvesting, packing, selling, consumer experience, and more. He adds that in the right circumstances machine harvesting can be very effective, but even in the best cases, it is not a panacea but simply one more tool for the committed, fresh market provider to lower overall costs.

Understanding and believing that grower success with blueberries starts and ends with consumers is a fundamental belief that Brazelton urges all growers to adopt, whether or not they machine harvest. “Growers must consistently supply an excellent blueberry that is a delight to eat or we will fail in our mission. Profits must follow quality. There can be no compromise,” he says. Machine harvesting is just one of many decisions growers must carefully consider.

Consider This Before Investing

Brazelton highlights five primary questions growers must ask themselves when considering the merits of machine harvest for fresh market for their farm:

• Is machine harvesting practical for me? Growers must consider in what portion of the market they grow. According to Brazelton, blueberries are most successfully machine harvested when the berries are allowed to fully ripen on the bush, thus concentrating more ripe fruit in a picking. Many growers operate in early ripening season areas when prices are more volatile. If you have to wait a little longer to ensure all the berries are ripe before machine harvesting, consider that prices may be dropping a bit each day. Those who hand pick can pick just the ripe fruit and capitalize on the higher prices early on.

Growers must also consider if the loss on under-ripe fruit is greater than the return on machine harvesting. Regions such as Florida and California will especially face these challenging decisions with early machine harvesting. Conversely, growers in areas with mid-season fruit ripening may be at an advantage for machine harvest options. Prices are typically not as volatile, allowing growers to let berries remain on the bushes long enough to minimize fruit loss due to under-ripe berries.

• Are the varieties conducive to machine harvesting available to me? Brazelton warns that not every berry variety is right for machine harvesting. There are four primary attributes best suited to machine harvest: 1) concentrated ripening; 2) berries that easily release at ripe stage (not green); 3) firm berries; and 4) berries with thicker skin.

Brazelton explains that when it comes to developing blueberry varieties specifically for machine harvest, Fall Creek’s breeding program, along with other programs, focuses trials on these critical attributes. Many varieties currently in the market do not have these attributes and are not suitable.

• How close to market am I? Brazelton notes that fresh blueberries don’t have a long shelflife. “Often but not always, machine-harvested blueberries get a little more beat up in the machine harvest process, thus decreasing shelflife” he says. “A grower in New Jersey can harvest one day and deliver to a New York market the next. It may be more challenging for growers in other regions who have two- to five-day transit times to larger markets.”

• How fast are my berry crops turning over at market? A caution: Sometimes production of fresh, machine-harvested blueberries can be ahead of demand, resulting in longer storage times. It may not be wise to machine harvest in this circumstance. A grower with a slower turn fresh market may be better off considering a berry that can provide a 10- to 14-day shelflife.

• What is the current condition of my fruit at harvest time? Even the best machine harvest variety may not be suitable following rains or high heat conditions.

Field Design

Brazelton notes that Fall Creek’s grower representatives have numerous conversations with growers who are considering machine harvesting, and another key topic is field design. Fields must be designed specifically for mechanical harvest from the beginning, including rows wide enough for equipment. Brazelton’s team recommends 10- to 12-foot rows. They also recommend a 25- to 30-foot headland at the end of rows for efficient equipment turns. Roads must be designed to accommodate equipment, as well.

Bed Design

Bed design is also important. Brazelton notes many growers report that raised beds, a design more common in the West, are more effective for mechanical harvest since they allow growers to bring the harvester catcher plates lower down on the crown from the standard 16-inch height, minimizing berry waste. Installing double wire trellising is another step towards maximizing success. The double wire trellis holds the crown narrower, allowing the catcher plates to meet the bush down lower with more efficient movement, minimizing berry drop, as well.

While machine harvesting blueberries can be a viable option for many fresh market growers, Brazelton urges growers to consider that machine harvesters are a valuable tool — not an end-all solution. With the appropriate variety mixes and market conditions, clear communication with buyers and marketers, strategic field design, and the right growing and harvest practices, growers can absolutely use mechanical harvesting as a tool to maintain high quality and reduce overall picking costs for fresh markets.

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