A seasonal labor shortage during harvesting is always a challenge. The entire fruit and vegetable sector is already facing this or will do so in the future and blueberry farmers aren't exempt. That's why Henk Boers decided to design a machine which mechanically harvests blueberries. Henk is from the Dutch blueberry nursery, De Haarakker. "But I have to build a new one. A fellow grower recently took over the first version. He used it well for the latest crop," says Henk.
Henk copied the design from an American blueberry mechanical picker. "I saw a machine like this being used in the US. It, however, lacked the CE label necessary for the European market. So, I decided to design one myself. We took the first machine on the road this season. We've been demonstrating it to local farmers. One of the growers was so enthusiastic; he decided to buy the machine. The next step is to build a few new ones for the market."
How it works
A tractor pulls Henk's machine through the orchard. Pins (as seen in the photo) shake the bushes. The berries then fall to the ground and are collected. "You can set the machine to very gently shake the bush. Or you can use it at full power. It depends on what you want," explains Henk.
Manually or mechanically?
Both manual and mechanical harvesting have their pros and cons. "In the end, it's a question of weighing these up. If you pick by hand, there is less loss. But cultivation costs are higher. With mechanical harvesting, unripe blueberries also fall to the ground, which means more loss. So, it's about which has more advantages. In our region, school kids help with harvesting at the start of the season. Then there's still a little ripe fruit left."
"Later in the season, we use the machine. So, when there are more ripe blueberries, you have less loss and lower labor costs," Boers says. "I think we'll move more toward mechanical harvesting in the future. Machines are becoming more innovative. Labor costs, as well as the pressure on the blueberry market, are increasing too. That's also why we're building more of these machines for the sector."
Henk has been in the blueberry growing business for more than 31 years. "At De Haarakker, we now have about six hectares of blueberry bushes. These yield an average of 30 tons per year. But I'm no longer a youngster, so I'm gradually downsizing. I'll continue building the harvester for now. I'm, however, looking for a partner. They must want to continue building De Haarakker's future," Henk concludes.