This past season saw Florida’s blueberry market window being squeezed from both sides, with Mexican blueberries coming in the front end and Georgia on the back end. This dynamic will change from year to year based on the weather, but what is for certain the days of a wide open, competition-free window are over.
This is forcing growers to seriously consider mechanical harvest. Considering that nearly half of production costs are wrapped up in hand harvest, machine harvest could considerably enhance profitability. Much of the UF/IFAS breeding program is now working on varieties that are suitable for machine harvest.
Last season, Kyle Hill, from Southern Hill Farms, launched a blueberry custom harvest business using two Oxbo 8000 over-the-row machines. He says the first season went great with 800,000 pounds of blueberries harvested. He says the machines performed well, especially during the peak and late season.
“In our observation, all the varieties did well with machine harvest with the exception of ‘Jewel,’ ‘Springhigh,’ and ‘Windsor,” he says. “Even the evergreen varieties did well. You just have to wait later in the season when there are not as many greens left on the bushes.”
He added a critical factor in the success is properly training bushes to be upright. That training begins from planting, as evidenced by the cartons around young bushes common in many fields these days.
Most of Hill’s customers switched to machine harvest when the price fell to about $3.50 per pound. However, he had a number of customers who set up their farms to switch to machine picking when about 50% of the crop was left on the bushes, regardless of price.
“We were very happy with the machines’ performance and believe that mechanical harvest will play a huge role in the future of Florida blueberries,” he says.
Kudos to Hill for being on the cutting edge of keeping the state’s blueberry crop viable in an every-changing marketplace for years to come.