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 (http://abpacking.com/fresh-fruit-harvesterfulcrum/) claims versatility with machine picking because it has both vertical and horizontal picking positions.
- Oxbo International (http://www.oxbocorp.com/) 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 (http://havenharvesters.com/) 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 (http://weremczukagro.pl/index.php/default) 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.