Equipped to Adapt

Mechanical Harvesting Gaining Popularity Amid Increased Imports, Labor Woes

by PAUL CATALA

photos provided by KYLE HILL and CHANDLER CRAFT

 

The beginning of 2018 is when Ryan Atwood began firing up the engines.

That’s when rising costs and an inconsistent labor situation, coupled with an influx of Mexican imports into the Florida market, drove him to turn to mechanical harvesting on his Umatilla blueberry farm.

 

Since about 2016, mechanical harvesting has become more prevalent among Florida’s more than 900 blueberry farms. It’s not just Florida that is seeing increased use of the method; in 2016, about 33 percent of fresh-market fruit was machine-harvested.

 

However, about 65 percent of participating growers in the national 2021 Global Harvest Automation Report said they invested in automation over the past three years, with an average of $350,000 to $400,000 spent per grower. Most progress in automation was in pre-harvest and harvest-assist activities. 

 

The most common use of machine harvesting of blueberries is for the processed or frozen market. However, as mechanical harvesting technology continues to improve, the method is becoming more common on farms across Florida.

 

Atwood harvested about 3 million pounds for the 2022 season, about 85 percent of that hand-harvested. But using machines is becoming more common on his farm.

 

“It’s mostly labor savings, that’s what it’s about,” he says. “We machine harvest a lot of varieties. As more varieties are released for machine harvesting, it’s the way to go in order to keep up with the demand.”

 

Leonard Park echoes that line of thought. Park, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, is the general manager of Frogmore Fresh, a 150-acre blueberry farm near Dade City. He says mechanized agriculture has been part of his farm since its founding in 2014 and the first mechanical harvester was utilized in 2017.

Park, who originally worked with his family in the Park Seed Co. mail-order business, says Frogmore averages 1 to 2 million pounds of blueberries per season, mid-March to late May. He said on his farm, it’s about 50-50 as far as harvesting by hand or machine, with earlier picking done by hand and as main varieties bear fruit and blueberry prices decrease, more mechanical harvesting is utilized.

 

“It’s really kind of an art and a science when you make that transition,” Park says.

During harvest season, Park says he has about 300 human harvesters working the fields on average, but “when we’re in our full peaks, we have four or five machines running, so that keeps us from going off the deep end with having so many people out there.”

Park started out with one harvesting machine as a growing business. Each machine costs on average between $140,000 to $250,000. He has since partnered with Kyle Hill of Southern Hills Farms in Clermont, who made a commitment to help acquire more machines, so there are two to four at the farm for the entire season.

“It increases productivity,” Park explains. “The decision was made here to emphasize mechanical harvesting before we even plowed the pasture or drilled the holes. The investment made is part of the plan.” 

Most mechanized blueberry harvesting is done at night, and Park says Hill must bring in crews to do that picking, from about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., so berries don’t get soft from the daytime heat. 

“It’s not for the faint of heart; you have to be tough to run this kind of operation. We almost always run at night so the fruit doesn’t get hot. Once it gets into the upper 80s and 90s, you shouldn’t machine harvest,” he says. “Even though there are some tough varieties that can handle it, to some degree, it’s not advisable to do that.” 

Mechanical harvesting, however, is not without its own set of challenges. Park explains that each farmer needs enough volume of blueberries to justify mechanized harvesting, and blueberry varieties are critical. Additionally, the way crops are planted is important so there is enough space to get machines in. Frogmore employees work to train the base of plants so that as the machine goes through a field, its fins don’t open so that fruit is able to fall to the ground. 

Park says fields need to be planted keeping in mind how much comes in at once, how the blueberries grow, and the shape of the plants.

“I think as the technology improves, particularly the genetics, you’re going to up the use of (mechanized harvesting). We don’t have perfect blueberry machines yet, but I think with a couple of new reiterations there’ll be some really good machines out there,” he says. 

According to UF/IFAS, other challenges include: 

  • Fruit missed by the harvester falls to the ground
  • Harvest of immature fruit
  • Missed mature fruit 
  • Fruit drops between harvests 
  • Fruit bruising
  • Plant injury 

Another blueberry grower, Kyle Straughn, harvested 4 million pounds of blueberries on his 750 acres of crops in Waldo and Homerville, Georgia. He says his harvests have utilized mechanical harvesters since he began his farming career in 2006. He says his farm got to the point economically and personnel-wise where using only manual labor was no longer feasible. 

Although he used machines in the past, mostly for cleaning up berries at the end of the harvest when there was no more market left or people to finish, he now uses them for 10 to 15 percent of his annual harvest. He has six mechanical harvesters, including two offset ones, and they’re all overhead diesel machines.

Straughn says that prices reach a high point in mid-April because of Mexican imports, so Straughn can’t afford to harvest by hand, but there may be 10 to 50 percent of the crop left in the field that can be scooped up using the machines.

 

During harvest season, Straughn has between 800 and 1,000 field crew applicants and has more than 800 working. With mechanized harvesters, he says more can be picked with fewer people and less money, using longer hours into the night when blueberries can’t be hand-picked.

 

“One positive aspect is it allows you to harvest your full crop and make sure it ends up in a store somewhere, even if it’s processed or fresh-packed. That’s a big positive. Also, as far as time, you can pick at night when you can’t pick by hand,” he says. “It allows us to have domestic fruit ready.” 

 

Like Park, Straughn says there’s extra long-term planning that needs to be done, such as having the right genetics and training the shape of the plant without dropping fruit from catch plates. He says machines often pick more green fruit than ripe, and then mechanized equipment will be needed to separate branches and leaves out in a packing house. 

According to UF/IFAS, the varieties most suitable for mechanical harvesting are:

  • Meadowlark, which has upright growth with a narrow crown that fits in over-the-row mechanical harvesters well and reduces the amount of fruit that is lost on the ground during the mechanical harvest process
  •  Farthing, which seems to be more suited for mechanical harvesting for the fresh market
  • Indigocrisp, which has a firm, crisp texture, resulting in similar pack-out percentages between hand- and mechanically harvested fruit.

Another berry under study for mechanical harvesters is “Sparkleberry,” a native Florida blueberry species with attributes desirable for mechanical harvesting.

Straughn predicts an upswing in mechanical harvesting within the next five to 10 years. 

 

“I think it’s going to go from the 10 to 20 percent it is now to more of a 50 percent,” he says.  

“You’re going to have to get more mechanized picking, or you’re probably not going to make it in the long term.”

 

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