During the last century, technological innovations have played a major role in improving agricultural productivity. Economic and policy changes often drive the adoption of novel technologies. One such innovation is the mechanical harvester, which was developed in response to the need to save on labor expenses, protect against the risk of labor scarcity, and benefit from the opportunity to increase labor productivity. However, in order for producers to adopt the technology, this technology must work well and be economically viable. In addition, adoption of new technologies may be accelerated if innovations are accompanied by associated innovations or changes to government policies and regulations. For example, the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) harvester was introduced in California during the 1960s, concurrent with the introduction of a new tomato cultivar (associated innovation) and subsequent end of the Bracero Program [change in government policy (Sunding and Zilberman, 2001)].
Once a technology has proven feasible, several factors affect patterns of adoption, including the inherent risks associated with the agriculture activity, investment costs, uncertainties around the innovation’s performance and reliability, and appropriateness for a specific agricultural operation. This paper develops a framework for improving the understanding of the potential profitability of adopting mechanical harvesters—in their current incarnation—at highbush blueberry operations in the state of Washington. Although machine harvest is the norm for processing highbush blueberries, fresh-market highbush blueberries are typically hand harvested. Hence, there is value in developing a technology that would enable machine harvesting of these blueberries.
The highbush blueberry industry presents an interesting case for analyzing the adoption of mechanical innovations in the field. Worldwide, the highbush blueberry industry is expanding: production increased 69.4% during 2008–12 (Garner, 2013). In 2012, the United States was the world leader in cultivated highbush blueberry, with 47% of global production (Brazelton, 2013), valued at $782 million (Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, 2013). In 2014, North America (comprising the United States, Canada, Mexico, and central American countries) accounted for 60% of global production (Brazelton, 2015). Washington has seen rapid increases in production volume and—more importantly—in per-acre productivity over the past decade. In 2012, Washington was the third largest producer of highbush blueberries in the United States, with 15% of total national production, exceeded only by Michigan with 19% and Oregon with 16% (USDA, 2013). Washington was second—with 10,400 lb/acre in productivity after only California, with 11,500 lb/acre (USDA, 2015). The state produces higher average and less variable yields compared with other regions in the United States due to climatic conditions and a larger investment in inputs and crop protection compared with other states (Brazelton, 2015).
On the consumer side, per capita highbush blueberry consumption also expanded. From 2000 to 2012, annual per capita consumption of highbush blueberries in the United States increased 400% from 0.26 to 1.3 lb (fresh) and 5% from 0.33 to 0.44 lb (processing) (USDA, 2013). Increased promotion of the health benefits of highbush blueberries increased consumption during the 1990s (DeVetter et al., 2015; U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, 2015).
Despite the noteworthy expansion, the highbush blueberry industry in Washington, in the United States, and worldwide faces various challenges; among the most critical is the decreasing availability of agricultural labor, which generally affects labor-intensive agricultural industries (Calvin, 2012; Calvin and Martin, 2010; Martin, 2009). In general, the U.S. specialty crop agriculture and the highbush blueberry industry have benefited from the supply of migrant labor, which is unpredictable. With the U.S. economic recession in 2008, fewer migrant workers have been available to harvest fruit and vegetable crops, and increased spending on border enforcement has raised the cost of migration for potential workers (Martin, 2009; Taylor et al., 2012). It is believed that the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico, the largest supplier of migrant labor, estimated to be living in the United States has decreased 12.9% since its peak of 12.2 million in 2007 (Passel et al., 2012). In addition, Latin America’s economic growth and productivity in both the farm and nonfarm sectors have been accelerating relative to growth in the United States Finally, as the agricultural labor force ages and older workers exit, the U.S. farm labor supply is likely to tighten further (Zahniser et al., 2012). Even as the supply of farm labor appears to be shrinking, demand for it has remained relatively constant at an annual average of 1 million workers since 2007. However, there has not yet been a widespread labor shortage (Hertz and Zahniser, 2013; Zahniser et al., 2012).
Highbush blueberry production is labor intensive, with critical masses of temporary labor needed for specific horticultural activities, such as harvest, throughout the production year. The decrease in the availability of labor could lead to crops left unharvested in the field, representing drastic economic losses to producers. For example, in 2011, in Georgia, 52% of highbush blueberry producers reported income losses due to lack of available workers (Georgia Department of Agriculture, 2012). An alternative to the industry’s current labor dependence is the successful implementation of mechanical harvesters for highbush blueberries for both the fresh and processing market. However, highbush blueberries are highly susceptible to damage, and fruit picked with a mechanical harvester—in its current incarnation—tends to exhibit decreased quality and a shortened amount of time before showing decay. This situation deters the adoption of mechanical harvesters—in their current incarnation—to harvest highbush blueberries for the fresh market.
The objective of this paper is to compare net revenues realized by a highbush blueberry operation when harvesting blueberries manually and when using a mechanical harvester. The mechanical harvester improves labor productivity; reducing labor costs but—in its current incarnation—diminishes total revenue due to decreased quality and shortened amount of time before decay. We develop an economic model and present a series of sensitivity analyses to estimate the different effects of various factors (e.g., prices for the fruit in the fresh and processing market, labor wages, harvestable yield, and quality losses, among others) on the net revenues realized when manually and mechanically harvesting highbush blueberries for both the fresh and processing markets. We apply our model to the blueberry industry in the state of Washington, where mechanical harvesters are currently used mostly for blueberries for the processing market, whereas blueberries for the fresh market are, in general, picked manually because of the high proportion of fruit damaged by mechanical picking.
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