Hand Harvesting Blueberries
In the Northwest, migratory groups as well as local adults and children hand pick blueberries. On average, 5 to 10 people per acre (with an extreme of 20) will be needed through the harvest season. Responsible field checkers should be hired to oversee individual pickers.
Traditionally, growers have utilized a punch card system in the field to keep track of the number of pounds picked by individual pickers. As record keeping regulations have increased, progressive growers have begun using bar code scanners to record pickers’ names, pounds picked, and hours worked (for Social Security and industrial insurance). Prospective pickers must be trained to ensure harvest of high quality fruit.
As blueberries do not ripen uniformly within clusters on the plants, multiple harvests are required. Most of the common cultivars can be picked clean in two to three harvests spaced 7 to 10 days apart. With larger acreage, growers find they must utilize pickers every third day to keep up with ripening.
Delay harvest until one-third of the berries have turned blue. Once the fruit has turned blue it can increase in size by 25 percent during further ripening. Ripe blueberries can retain their freshness for as long as 10 days on the bush. Pickers should be instructed to use both hands in harvesting. Roll (do not squeeze) ripe fruit from the cluster into the palm of the opposite hand. After a rain, wait until the bushes have dried off before harvesting. Handling fruit when it is wet will lead to a loss of the surface wax and an increase in decay.
Various containers have been used in picking blueberries. The best method involves pickers placing fruit directly into the 1-pint market box, which is set in a shallow metal can worn on a belt around the picker’s neck in the field. This reduces the amount of handling the berries will be exposed to.
Field packing, however, requires very strict worker supervision. If any leaves or stems are placed in the boxes, the fruit will have to be re-sorted prior to capping with cellophane squares. The more common method of harvesting has pickers placing fruit into plastic pails (4 to 5 qt) which are tied around the picker’s waist. Inspection and grading of the fruit then takes place in a packing shed where the fruit can be passed through an air separation unit to remove twigs and leaves, and then passed over a slowly moving coveyor so that overmature, under-ripe, or decayed fruit can be removed.