Research in mechanical blueberry harvesting

It’s late in the growing season at the North Carolina State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Castle Hayne Research Station as blueberry breeder Maggie Schaber walks the rows, plucking the occasional berry and popping it into her mouth.

‘Hot’ doesn’t begin to describe this sweltering June morning. But the berries don’t seem to mind. Indeed, they’re plump and warm and delicious, delivering a little bit of the sun with each bite.

Parked at the end of one plot is a large mechanical harvester, and in the distance perches a new pack shed (painted N.C. State red and white, of course).

Both are recent acquisitions by the station and will aid Schaber’s work to develop blueberry varieties that can withstand the rigors of mechanical harvest.

“My job is to breed commercial cultivars,” Schaber says. “I really want the growers in this state to excel and provide the best product possible to consumers.”

Funded by the college’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI),the new harvester has advanced technology that makes it much gentler on the fruit than older models and also more accurately represents the machines currently used by commercial growers. It employs two large beater heads with “fingers” that agitate to shake the berries loose.

“As great as this new technology is, there are still a number of issues with mechanical harvest,” Schaber says, “The growers need something that doesn’t bruise the fruit and that picks the blue fruit, not the green fruit.”

Schaber’s work to breed a more resilient berry not only will aid the growers, but also will benefit the companies that design and manufacture the mechanical harvesters by providing insight into how their machines can best function.
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