The U.S. blueberry industry is booming.
USDA figures from 2019 pegged total U.S. harvested acres up 15% from 2018, with total production growing 21%, to 673 million pounds. A decade-long sprint to grow the domestic crop has acres up 60% from 2009.
And most producers are eyeing up the fresh market sector, with fresh berries cashing in at $2.03/lb, more than four times the $0.50/lb that processed berries will fetch on their way to jams and syrups.
But that doesn’t come without some berry big challenges.
Fresh berries have traditionally been hand-picked, and naturally, that means you need a lot of hands in the fields, a tough task in growing regions where farm labor is tough to come by.
Enter the machines. The rapid adoption of testing and trialing machine harvesters has become the norm. But they, too, have barriers.
With blueberry plants scaling up to six feet tall, berries encounter multiple ‘drops’ as they are harvested through the machine. With drops of 12-inches or more creating a chance of bruising, producers often test G-force safe zones with various landing pad materials to minimize crop damage.
And mums the word: Many growers won’t discuss their machinery or harvest solutions because they want their brand associated with ‘hand-picked’…even if their crop isn’t.
The final verdict: More than just the machines themselves, other factors matter too, like proper harvest timing, ripe picking temperatures, and nailing the right machine speed by variety. When you add incoming improvements in genetics and pruning, machine-harvested quality could mirror hand-picked in the not-too-distant future.