Consumer preference for fresh, frozen and value-added forms of blueberries is growing each year. Americans consumed roughly 750 million pounds of blueberries in 2016.¹ This number is projected to grow over the next few years with no sign of decline. We are proud to be one of the blueberry growers/suppliers that brought these delicious, healthy blueberries into homes across the country. Therefore, we take our job as a grower of more than 2,500 acres of family owned-farmed-harvested and delivered to the consumer blueberries very seriously!
We use two different methods to harvest the blueberries grown on our farms: hand harvested and machine harvested. We are exploring these methods, how they work, and why they work for us in this blog to help you become more familiar with what we do.
Hand-harvesting is the initial method we use to put fresh blueberries into a clamshell package, giving the consumer visual access on the produce shelf. Gunnar Avinelis, CEO, AgriCare Inc., weighs in on hand verses machine harvesting in a recent interview by Western Farm Press, “The benefits of handpicking include picking only fruit ready for market. Blueberries often do not ripen within individual bunches at the same time making it necessary for harvest crews to return to get later ripe fruit.”²
History tells us that hand-picked blueberries maintain best on the fresh produce shelf. Hand-harvesting typically starts early in the morning when the fruit is cool from the nighttime temperatures. Crews begin once the dew is gone and typically work eight-hour shifts depending on ambient temperatures. Once the temperature reaches 90° F we send the hand harvesting crews home. It’s better to harvest cool berries if possible. Removing the field heat quickly is essential for berry quality and shelf-life.
Tom Avinelis, Founder/President/owner, AgriCare, Inc., explains the outcome of a good day of harvesting.
“On average a good picker will harvest 200 to 300 pounds of berries a day,” Avinelis said. “ Usually the total harvest will be between 3,000 to 5,000 pounds in one pass across a field. Ten people can harvest one acre a day. A 60-person crew can harvest 6 acres a day.”
Machine harvesting, on the other hand, uses a large machine on wheels that looks like an upside-down U. The machine fits on either side of a row of berry plants and uses sturdy plastic rods configured on tall cylinders that move through the blueberry plants to shake the berries off the bush and collects them into totes that stack on the back of the machine.³ Machines run early in the morning or at night when it is cool. We typically machine harvest when the ambient temperature 90° F or less. A single machine can harvest up to six acres per day, during a ten-hour shift. Each harvester is staffed with three people: a driver and two people handling the totes as they fill and are stacked on a pallet on the deck of the harvester.
We use both methods to harvest our blueberries because they make it possible to pick berries for both fresh and process market buyers.
“Hand harvesting is the best way to handle fruit and we get less crop loss,” Tom Avinelis said. “Hand harvesting starts earlier in the season and we pick the ‘cream of the crop.’” One of the challenges of hand harvesting is labor availability, one reason why machine harvest is becoming more common in the blueberry industry.
Machine harvesting, on the other hand, is excellent economically but comes with substantial crop loss because fruit falls on the ground and green berries are picked that could have remained on the plant until fully ripe.
Both harvesting methods have pros and cons, but ultimately each serves its purpose well and makes it possible to supply consumers around the world with top quality blueberries that taste fantastic. Our mission is producing safe, high-quality crops to feed families and we are committed to caring for the land and its resources for future generations. Blueberries are one of those resources and we’re proud to grow and harvest this amazing fruit for you.