Florida Blueberry Growers Fielding Rise of the Machines

Florida Blueberry Growers Fielding Rise of the Machines

Mechanical blueberry harvester in field

Oxbo International is among a handful of manufacturers of blueberry harvesting machines.
Photo courtesy of Oxbo International

There is a general consensus that mechanical harvest is the way forward for the Florida blueberry industry to remain competitive with escalating costs and an uncertain labor situation. Last season’s influx of Mexican imports in Florida’s market window only heightened that awareness.

Ryan Atwood has experimented with mechanical harvest on his Umatilla blueberry farm, working the Oxbo 8000 and A&B’s Fulcrum. He says they begin mechanical harvest when blueberry prices drop to around $3.50 per pound. Currently, he says, there are no varieties suitable for mechanical harvest. But, plant breeders at UF/IFAS are working to develop new lines that are.

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We asked Atwood for his thoughts on mechanical harvest and how the practice pencils out.

What varieties have you observed that seem best suited for mechanical harvest?
Atwood: ‘Meadowlark’ is one variety that you can pick with a machine that somewhat works in Central Florida, but it is a low yielder. If you train your bushes for mechanical harvesting, you can pick ‘Emerald’ with a machine, but not until you break up clusters.

Blueberries trained to grow straight with help of OJ cartons

New blueberry plantings can be trained to grow upright and clean with the help of orange juice cartons.
Photo by Frank Giles

What are some important considerations for mechanical harvest, bed setup, plant training, etc.?
Atwood: I use cartons to train my young plants, but it comes with problems and extra labor costs. I think you are best to incorporate bark into the soil if you plan on mechanical harvesting. I plant in incorporated beds and put cartons on my young plants with larger diameter bamboo (which is more expensive up front but saves you labor in the long run). Then you should base prune to train plants as well. All of this costs money, with the idea that it will come back to you in saved labor expenses down the road.

How does the cost of mechanical harvest and packout stack up against hand harvest?
Atwood: This depends on the quality of fruit brought to the packinghouse. A good mechanical harvesting operator can achieve packout percentages comparable to hand picking. In that scenario, the packing charges are the same. The fixed cost of the machine is very expensive (ranges from $140,000 to $250,000 for new equipment). However, if you amortize the cost over many years and many pounds of fruit, then the price per pound is very inexpensive. The variable rate of harvest then comes down to labor, maintenance, and diesel costs. I know of only one Florida and two Georgia mechanical harvesting contractors. They typically charge between 30 cents and 35 cents per pound. Hand-pick charges can range from 90 cents to $1.20 per pound.

Anything else that you would like to add?
Atwood: Mechanical harvest is the only chance we have to compete with Mexico’s pricing. The Florida blueberry industry has to figure out how to mechanically harvest. It’s not a matter of wanting to learn, but absolutely having to figure it out. For the immediate future, you don’t have to harvest your entire crop by machine — only some portion of it to reduce expense and increase profitability.

For example, let’s say that Atwood Family Farm harvests 200,000 pounds of fruit in 2019 and pays $1.20 pound for hand harvesting on the entire crop. That is $240,000 dollars of revenue spent on harvest. Let’s say our farm instead picks 140,000 pounds by hand (which would be 70% of crop) and 60,000 pounds with a machine (which would be 30% of crop) at a cost of 35 cents per pound. The total cost of harvesting would be $168,000 for hand picking, plus $21,000 for machine, which gives a combined total of $187,000. Savings from implementing harvesting just 30% of your crop with a machine would be $53,000 under this scenario.

Most growers, including myself, are struggling to learn how to maximize and successfully harvest fruit using machines under our current production systems. Although some individuals have successfully implemented mechanical harvesting over the past few years, it is the most critical action that Florida blueberry growers need to implement in their operations.