Innovative harvesting system developed for the blueberry industry

In Oregon, one of the best blueberry growing regions in the world, it is expensive for pickers to handpick the delicate fruit for the fresh market.

New harvesting technology developed by Wei Qiang Yang, associate professor and berry extension agent for Oregon State University Extension Service, could reduce the average cost of harvesting fresh blueberries from more than $ 12,000 to $ 3,000 per acre .

“This is a big step forward for the industry,” Yang said. “It is a great advance to go from manual labor to the mechanical harvest of fresh blueberries.”

Called the soft catch system, the mechanism features a soft surface to catch the delicate berries in contrast to the hard polycarbonate surface of traditional row machines (OTR), which have been used to harvest blueberries for processing, not for fresh market. for 30 years. Priced at $ 250.000, Yang's machine is only affordable for large growers, but the system could be adapted for older OTR combines.

Most machine-harvested blueberries go to processors to be made into jams and other products. However, a fresh market crop needs gentle handling to prevent bruising of the berries. Yang's invention captures the fruit, so the berries are in good condition to ship to stores. In addition to a pleasant taste, blueberries are known as a "superfood" with many health benefits.

Oregon and Washington produce more blueberries than anywhere in the world, and Oregon harvests 150 million pounds a year, representing more than $ 120 million in value on the farm. Yang said Oregon has the highest yield per acre in the world because the climate and soil conditions of the Willamette Valley are perfect for growing berries.

Labor shortage
Yang, who works at OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center, works closely with growers in the Willamette Valley and recognized the high cost of hand harvesting blueberries. Competition with the nursery and housing industries and a lack of workers generally mean fewer workers, leading to fewer berries being picked during harvest. Sometimes, Yang said, a grower may need 200 pickers, but can only hire half of a team.

When workers work on large farms, they can harvest millions of pounds per season by hand, which translates to huge expenses at a rate of 50 to 85 cents per pound for high-quality blueberries for the fresh market.

"Fruits harvested by machine with the soft catch system will have a similar quality to fruits harvested by hand," Yang said. "Therefore, the cost of harvesting fresh quality blueberries will be reduced by more than 70%, which will reduce the amount of labor and increase the profitability and competitiveness of blueberry farms in the Pacific Northwest."

Easy to clean
Of the four soft-catch prototypes that have been manufactured, three were sourced by Oregon producers for on-farm testing. Others have been manufactured by OTR processors as an accessory for OTR processors. Yang continues to fine-tune the gentle capture system, more importantly, making surfaces easier to clean and sanitize than traditional OTR machines.

“Equally important in a global market is producing safe, high-quality fruit that maintains its freshness from picking to eating,” Yang said. "The berries must be free of pathogens that can affect human health."

To be successful in the market, the soft catch system also needs to collect blueberries of the size and quality of hand-picked berries. During packaging, blueberries go through a sorting machine that rejects discolored, bruised, damaged, or smaller fruit than required by the US Department of Agriculture. If they are not acceptable, it is a loss to the grower.

magical The number magical is 75% of the harvest that is obtained through classification, said Yang. When that happens, the soft catch system gains even more traction in the blueberry and farm equipment industries. Innovative growers have already started adopting soft catch technology, Yang said.

Plans for the future include picnics in southern Oregon and the Willamette Valley to demonstrate the technology and solicit feedback from growers and packers. He also plans to write an outreach post on mechanical berry harvesting for the fresh market.

"Improving profitability will in turn help preserve these high-value industries and rural economies and the livelihoods on which they are based," Yang said.

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