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Review of the US Highbush Blueberry Council Technology Symposium

Volume 7 Issue 3

L.W. DeVetter

The US Highbush Blueberry Council hosted a one-day symposium on Feb. 27 in Salt Lake City, Utah on technologies that have or have the potential to advance the blueberry industry.  This article presents a review of the symposium and some of the topics addressed.


What’s driving the need for new technologies?

Although the highbush blueberry industry has expanded rapidly within the past decade, that expansion has also brought about new challenges.  Some of the main challenges highlighted by many of the symposium speakers were the costs and availability of labor.  Furthermore, many speakers were quick to specify that labor costs don’t just include salaries and wages, which have been on the rise.  Labor costs can also include facilities and infrastructure to house employees, time spent on training, and uniforms and other personal equipment.  Mechanization and automation technologies aim to reduce or eliminate some of these costs.  Furthermore, several speakers made note that increased use of mechanical and automated technologies in fields and packing houses can reduce food safety risks while promoting traceability and product consistency.  These are all important aspects of an increasingly competitive global market and underscore why advances in technology are so important for blueberry and other specialty crop industries.

With an abundance of technology also comes an abundance of data.  Abundant data can be a double-edged sword.  While good data can provide a means to become a data-driven farmer or packing house operator, it is easy to get drowned in a the cascade of data that new technologies are generating.  While data clouds generated at the farm level can inform farming and related operations, research, education, and adaptation are still needed to appropriately implement these technologies and allow commercial operators to make the most use of the data being generated.


Machine Harvesting for Fresh Markets

Blueberry mechanical harvesting is not new, but developing the technologies and systems to mechanically pick high quality blueberries with extended postharvest storage lives for the fresh market sector is. The first panel of speakers at the symposium included manufacturers of mechanical harvest aid systems and mechanical harvesters.  Companies that presented and a short description of what they presented are listed below.

  • The Fulcrum Harvester by A&B Packing Equipment ( claims versatility with machine picking because it has both vertical and horizontal picking positions.
  • Oxbo International ( has been making advances in integrating soft fruit catching surfaces to minimize bruising impacts in their over-the-row berry harvesters. They have also been highly involved in collaborative research with USDA, the University of Georgia, Washington State University, Oregon State University, and several other public universities to develop an over-the-row machine that harvests high-quality fresh market blueberries.
  • Haven Harvesters ( manufactures berry harvesters that utilize a sway picking mechanism and can be modified to pick younger plants. Haven plans to do more demonstrations of their harvesters in the west coast in 2018.
  • Weremczu ( originates from Poland and the Karen 2018 pull-behind harvester claims ample storage for totes, soft drop solutions within the harvester, and a small energy shaking system to minimize bruising.

Modified Oxbo 7420 trialed in 2017 in Lynden, WA (LEFT). Rear view showing modified catching surfaces (ABOVE). Photo by DeVetter.

  • GK Machine ( originates from Oregon and has been developing a harvest-aid system that still relies on human labor to harvest fruit. This harvest aid is still being developed and is not commercially for sale yet.  This system operates by having workers stand on each side of the frame to pick while the harvester moves down a row.  GK hopes to add in automated stacking and conveying of berry flats to facilitate continuous harvesting in future designs.
  • Littau ( This company, also from Oregon, has long made over-the-row berry harvesters for processed fruit.  The bucket conveyor system also minimizes fruit drops and potential sites for bruise damage, which is beneficial when machine harvesting for fresh.
  • Air Jet Berry Harvester by Kokan ( is a pull-behind harvester.  This harvester is unique because it utilizes air pulsation to initiate the drop of ripe fruit.  The fruit then drop onto pneumatic pillows to decrease bruising.  The manufacturer claims this technique minimizes plant damage and the collection of unripe (green) fruit.

Kokan Air Jet Berry Harvester. Photo by Kokan.

Optical Sorting

The next panel highlighted advances made in optical sorting for fresh packing operations.  They also emphasized how new imaging technologies, like hyperspectral imaging, can sort beyond just softness and color and are now able to detect subsurface bruising.  Subsurface bruising is different than softness, as subsurface bruising may not be detected by soft sorters because bruising damage usually takes longer to manifest to the point of detection with traditional imaging technologies.  The technologies for sorting should continue to improve, as artificial intelligence, machine learning, improved ejection techniques, and digital fingerprinting becomes increasingly refined and incorporated.


Other Emerging Technologies

Several other new and emerging technologies that could have application to the blueberry industry were introduced.  They include:

  • Edipeel ( – Apeel Sciences developed Edipeel, a powder made from edible extracts of fruit and vegetable peels and pulps.  They currently have organic and synthetic versions and are applied to extend the postharvest life of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Tertill ( Imagine your Roomba now had the ability to weed your garden.  That is essentially what Terill is – a solar powered robotic weeder created by some of the same minds that brought you Roomba.  The Tertill designed for home gardeners will be available for retail in spring 2018, but the company is also working on developing the technology to have cooperative fleets of these weeders that could weed commercial farms of various size.  They expect to test prototypes summer 2018 and develop commercial models for sale in 2019 or 2020.
  • Spensa Technologies ( showcased several pieces of hardware that can be integrated with their software to make arthropod and insect pest data collection more efficient. For example, the Z-Trap has metal rods that shock an insect that has been attracted by a specific pheromone.  The shocked insect then falls into a trap and is collected.  Through bioimpedance, the number of insects is recorded in real-time.  This data can be accessed wirelessly by a grower to assess populations of pest species in their fields and develop an informed integrated pest management plan.  Insects can also be quantified by the grower to provide ground truthing of the technology.  While this technology is promising, it hasn’t yet developed the tools to assess insects like SWD or blueberry maggot.

Tertill weeder. Photo from Franklin Robotics.

 Z-Trap by Spensa Technologies. Photo by Spensa Technologies.


Financing the Future

The promise of technologies that improve production efficiencies and on-farm profitability is appealing and tangible.  However, funding these technologies and discovering what is economical is challenging.  Several thoughtful presenters at the end of the day underscored that the berry industry should be engaged in finding the technology developers to solve their problems and consider funding their efforts to help advance the technology forward at a faster rate.  They also underscored cooperation and sharing of information for the benefit of all to address the pressing challenges that cause us to look at technology to provide solutions to our agricultural problems.