Blueberry machine harvesting still a no-go for fresh market
May 4, 2012 By David Schmidt
British Columbia blueberry growers have long relied on machines to pick their berries for the processing market. With labour becoming more scarce and more costly, many hope they can also use machines to pick for the fresh market.
The jury is still out on that.
B.C. Ministry of Agriculture berry specialist Mark Sweeney, Oregon State University professor Bernadine Strik and B.C. grower/packers Sukh Kahlon and Harvey Krause offered their insights into the topic at a panel discussion during the Pacific Agriculture Show in late January.
While she believes it is inevitable, Strik says “machines will have to change” before it becomes commonplace.
Sweeney agrees, noting current machines still cause a lot of bruising. Even non-obvious damage reduces shelf life so getting the berries to market quickly is “essential.”
That limits them to the local market, Krause says. “Over 80 per cent of fresh-market B.C. blueberries are shipped out and you can’t use machine-picked berries for that.”
Both he and Kahlon believe Duke is now the only variety suitable for machine harvesting for the fresh market. Duke blueberries “have a concentrated ripening window and their fruit tends to hold well,” Kahlon states.
They hold out some hope for the new Draper variety although it is so new to B.C. that “we won’t really know for another three to five years.”
Growers need to wait for more of the crop to ripen to make efficient use of machine picking. This simple fact works against use of machines for the fresh market.
“You can start to hand pick when only 30 per cent of the crop is ready but you need at least 70 per cent for machine picking,” Kahlon says. “Every day you wait exposes you to risk and may cause you to miss the higher-priced early season. If we had a variety which ripened in a two-week window, it would be better.”
That should reduce bruising because there would be less overripe fruit but could be self-defeating. The price premium growers count on early in the season could disappear if machines bring more volume onto the market than it can absorb.
All panelists stressed the need to prepare plants for machine harvest through severe, careful pruning. Machine picking requires straight rows, a narrow crown, trellised plants with no low branches and drip irrigation.
Even with better machines, “only the best growers with the best management will be able to do it,” Strik says.
Krause says growers need to be extra careful with a machine.
“The weather has to be just right, you need to be very gentle with the beaters and you must drive slow,” he cautions.
That’s a tough combination.
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