Blueberry Harvesting Methods: By Hand, Shaking and Catching and Machine Picking

1.) Picking by hand

Blueberry picking is an enjoyable way to harvest blueberries. Look for good ripe blueberries. A good blueberries skin should not be cracked and it should be firm blue and round, blue. They won’t get any sweeter after picking. To pick blueberries cup your hand under the bunch of blueberries and simply attempt to roll them off the branch into your hand using your thumb. Then put the blueberries in your bucket. If it doesn’t come off easily, it’s probably not ripe yet so just move on. Several blueberries at a time using this procedure and most of the berries that are not ready will stay on the stem. About 40 to 50 percent of blueberries grown commercially are hand-picked.

Blueberry picking tool:

Using a blueberry rake can make picking go much faster. A blueberry rake is a flat toothed instrument used to pull the berries from the plant without damaging the plant. Using a Hubbard rake is much faster than doing the same thing by hand. These are manufactured by the Hubbard Rake Co. in Jonesport, Maine 04649.

Hand harvesting blueberries has been estimated to require up to 550 worker-hours per acre and in 2011 costs around $1.00 per pound. Labor costs are projected to rise while blueberry prices are expected to drop. As the blueberry industry expands nationally finding enough hand picking laborers during the peak harvest season may become a problem.

2.) U-Pick

U-pick is done by hand by customers who come to the farm for that purpose. They carry their blueberries in a bucket or other container. Some time a rope is put on the bucket so it can hang over their shoulder or around a person’s neck. An excellent container can easily be made by using a 1 gallon plastic milk bottle and cutting off the upper part of the front side and top, making sure the handle part is left on. From a farmers perspective u-picking may be the most profitable alternative. However you must carry significant liability insurance in case of an unforeseen accident.

3.) Shaking and Catching (blueberry fruit catch frame)

There are blueberry fruit catch frames that are made to roll under the blueberry bushes to collect the blueberries when the branches are shaken. The branches or stems can be gently tapped with a rubber hand-held hose to shake off the ripe blueberries. You can also use an electric or air driven mechanical vibrator to shake the branches. If you get too many green blueberries shaken off it means you’re tapping too hard! Using such a simple, hand-operated, wheeled rolling catch frame you can harvest a heavily loaded large bearing plant in just a short time. When you want to empty the frame the frame that is now full of blueberries it is tilted on its wheels back so that ripe fruit rolls to a rear flap which is opened so that the berries fall right into the container. The blueberries can then gently run over an inclined blower and belt to remove any trash.

You can solve the hot weather picking blues of long hours in the field picking blueberries using this method. You can then offer your U-Pick customers fresh-picked blueberries at retail prices! These blueberry fruit catch frames were the predecessors of today’s mechanical harvesting systems. They were widely used in the 1950s and often used hand-held vibrators power-driven using batteries or compressed air to take off fruit. As discussed above the fruit was caught in a canvas-covered catching structure positioned under the plant. Such a simple system is incredibly efficient reducing the harvest cost by 55% and reducing harvest time by more than 200%. Blueberry fruit catch frames are now hard to find because manufactures now make mechanical harvesting systems and have discontinued making the catch frames.

If you cannot find a commercially available catch frame you can build your own by using a photo image of such a catch frame as shown on of blueberry croft’s blueberry blog.

4.) Machine harvesting of blueberries

Harvesting blueberries using a machine is not a panacea. If the slope of the ground exceeds 10 percent it is difficult to harvest with a machine. Damage to the blueberries is greater than hand picking. In general, the expense of a self-propelled harvesting machine cannot be justified unless the blueberry producing acreage exceeds 10 acres.

Several factors have generated increased interest in using a machine to harvest of blueberries in recent years, as mechanical harvesting technology has improved, and new labor regulations have come about and cost have increased. Not all fields are suitable for use of mechanical harvesters. Generally at least 10 or wide rows are required and 25-foot turnaround places at the end of rows are needed for the movement of motorized harvesters. Blueberries for the fresh market have a short shelf-life when they are machine harvested. Therefore blueberries harvested by machine needs to be sold quickly. The shelf life is typical shorter than hand-picked blueberries.

Perhaps the most severe drawback to using mechanical harvesters is this process can cause the damage to the blueberries. Blueberries can be simply bruised by impact resulting from a vertical fall during any step in the process of mechanical harvesting. If the height of a drop onto a hard surface exceeds 6 inches extensive bruising can occur to ripe blueberries. The amount of damage is related to the distance the blueberries fall. Bruised blueberries are also subject to sustaining more decay during storage after harvest.

Today harvesting by machine is about 10 times faster than a typical person using a hand rake swiping it through the shrubs over and over all day. About 10 years ago 20 percent blueberries were harvested using mechanical equipment. Today about 80 percent of growers with large fields of blueberries use machinery to replace hand pickers because it’s cheaper.