Moving the California blueberry industry from a predominantly hand-harvested process to a mechanized one will require a coordinated effort of farmers, breeders, researchers, and other industry participants.

This was a takeaway message from a recent blueberry field day conducted by the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) in Central California in May.

Much of the discussion during the event at the Kearney Agricultural and Extension Center in Parlier was a shift toward using a wild variety rootstock for blueberry plantings called Vaccinium arboretum.

According to Manuel Jimenez, UCCE small farm and specialty vegetable farm advisor in Tulare County, the focus on the rootstock is based on its ability to grow in higher pH soils.

“We have neutral to alkaline soils in California blueberry growing regions,” Jimenez said. “In almost every case we have to acidify the soil. If you don’t it’s very difficult to acidify the soil after planting.”

The application of acidic soil amendments is just one cost factor in blueberry production, but it is not the only factor Jimenez is working on with his research peers in other U.S. blueberry regions, including Florida and Oregon.

 

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Part of the trial studies conducted by Extension specialists extends elsewhere, including the use of organic materials as an additional soil amendment. This also is a cost factor when considering blueberry plantings.

A third portion of university studies deals with training existing blueberry plants to grow a closer base for a closer fit for mechanical harvesters, and in the end, less fruit loss during harvest. But, even then that is a short-term fix to long-term viability of the blueberry industry. Jimenez says a single-stock plant is also needed.

The availability and expense of farm labor weighs into these decisions, according to Jimenez. Before a more efficient means of mechanized harvesting can be accomplished and used on a widespread scale, rootstocks should be modified from a bush-style growth pattern to a single trunk. This is where much of the focus is underway.

“We lose about 20 percent of the fruit through mechanical harvesting,” Jimenez said. “The issue is how the harvester handles the blueberry plant. The issue is not about building a better harvester, but growing a plant to match the mechanics of the harvester.”

By producing a better rootstock with a single trunk, the harvester can operate more efficiently on the plant. Jimenez says the aim is to reduce the crop loss by 10 percent or less.