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  • Author or Editor: James W. Olmstead x
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In recent years, world blueberry (Vaccinium sp.) production has been split evenly between processing and fresh fruit markets. Machine harvest of highbush blueberry {northern highbush blueberry [NHB (V. corymbosum)], southern highbush blueberry [SHB (V. corymbosum interspecific hybrids)], and rabbiteye blueberry [RE (V. virgatum)]} typically has been used to obtain large volumes of fruit destined for processing. Because of financial and labor concerns, growers are interested in using machine harvesting for fruit destined to be fresh marketed. Bush architecture, harvest timing, loose fruit clusters, easy detachment of mature berries compared with immature berries, no stem retention, small stem scar, a persistent wax layer, and firm fruit are breeding goals to develop cultivars amenable to machine harvest. Progress in selecting for these traits has been made in existing highbush blueberry breeding programs, but will likely intensify as the need for cultivars suitable for machine harvest for the fresh market increases.

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Cross-pollination has been associated with improved fruit set, weight, and shortened time to ripening in southern highbush blueberry [SHB (Vaccinium corymbosum interspecific hybrids)]. Because of this, growers commonly plant two or more cultivars in small blocks to facilitate cross-pollination. However, many SHB cultivars may vary in the degree of improvement in each parameter after cross-pollination. Understanding the impacts of cross-pollination on a particular cultivar is crucial to forming planting recommendations, particularly as growers begin to transition to fields designed for machine harvest where large solid blocks would increase the harvest efficiency. The objective of this study was to examine the effects of cross- and self-pollination among 13 commonly planted or newly released SHB cultivars. Cross-pollination typically improved fruit set, fruit weight, and seed number while decreasing the average days to harvest. Cross-pollinated fruit always weighed more than self-pollinated fruit from the same cultivar, which was highly correlated to seed number per fruit. Although there was variation for each trait, interplanting with another unrelated cultivar sharing a similar bloom time remains the best recommendation to ensure early, high yield among these SHB cultivars.

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Because of financial and labor concerns, growers are interested in using machine harvesting for fruit destined to be fresh marketed. Machine harvest of highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) has typically been used to obtain large volumes of fruit destined for processing. Bush architecture, easy detachment of mature berries compared with immature berries, loose fruit clusters, small stem scar, firm fruit, and a concentrated ripening period are breeding goals to develop cultivars amenable to machine harvest. In the University of Florida (UF) southern highbush blueberry [SHB (Vaccinium corymbosum hybrids)] breeding program, sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) has been used in wide crosses in an attempt to introgress traits that may be valuable for machine harvesting, namely upright growth habit with a narrow crown and long flower and fruit pedicels creating loose fruit clusters. Two eras of sparkleberry hybridization experiments have occurred since the early 1980s. The first era used darrow’s evergreen blueberry (Vaccinium darrowii) as a bridge between sparkleberry and tetraploid SHB, with the recently released cultivar FL 01-173 (sold under the trademarked name Meadowlark) as an example of the end product. The second era has used chromosome doubling to develop polyploid sparkleberry selections that were directly crossed with tetraploid SHB. After 1 year of evaluation, a SHB × (SHB × sparkleberry) population developed for linkage and quantitative trait locus mapping showed abundant variation for length:width ratio of the plant, but similarity to the highbush phenotype for peduncle and pedicel length of the fruit. These first evaluations indicate evidence of introgression and provide an initial step toward improved cultivars for mechanical harvesting.

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Northern highbush (NH) blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) and southern highbush (SH) blueberry (V. corymbosum hybrids) have fruit that vary in firmness. The SH fruit is mostly hand harvested for the fresh market. Hand harvesting is labor-intensive requiring more than 500 hours/acre. Rabbiteye blueberry (V. virgatum) tends to have firmer fruit skin than that of NH blueberry and has been mostly machine harvested for the processing industry. Sparkleberry (V. arboreum) has very firm fruit. With the challenges of labor availability, efforts are under way to produce more marketable fruit using machine harvesting. This could require changing the design of harvesting machine and plant architecture, and the development of cultivars with fruit that will bruise less after impact with hard surfaces of machines. The objectives of this study were to determine the fruit quality of machine-harvested SH blueberry, analyze the effect of drop height and padding the contact surface on fruit quality, investigate the effect of crown restriction on ground loss, and determine the effect of plant size on machine harvestability. The fruit of ‘Farthing’, ‘Scintilla’, ‘Sweetcrisp’, and several selections were either hand harvested or machine harvested and assessed during postharvest storage for bruise damage and softening. Machine harvesting contributed to bruise damage in the fruit and softening in storage. The fruit of firm-textured SH blueberry (‘Farthing’, ‘Sweetcrisp’, and selection FL 05-528) was firmer than that of ‘Scintilla’ after 1 week in cold storage. Fruit drop tests from a height of 20 and 40 inches on a plastic surface showed that ‘Scintilla’ was more susceptible to bruising than that of firm-textured ‘Farthing’ and ‘Sweetcrisp’. When the contact surface was cushioned with a foam sheet, bruise incidence was significantly reduced in all SH blueberry used in the study. Also, the fruit dropped 40 inches developed more bruise damage than those dropped 20 inches. Ground loss during machine harvesting was reduced from 24% to 17% by modifying the rabbiteye blueberry plant architecture. Further modifications to harvesting machines and plant architecture are necessary to improve the quality of machine-harvested SH and rabbiteye blueberry fruit and the overall efficiency of blueberry (Vaccinium species and hybrids) harvesting machines.

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Three southern highbush blueberry cultivars (Vaccinium corymbosum hybrids) were mechanically harvested (MH) or hand-harvested (HH) and commercially packed before storage for 14 days at 1 °C in two successive years. MH fruit were softer, had lower ratings for overall appearance, and lost up to 20% more fresh weight than HH fruit after 14 days storage. MH ‘Meadowlark’ had fewer soft fruit (<35%) during storage than either ‘Sweetcrisp’ or ‘Farthing’; however, the latter two cultivars had lower incidences of shrivel and weight loss. Fruit in the 2010 season were more susceptible to bruising than those from the 2009 season; however, soluble solids content (SSC), total titratable acidity (TTA), and ascorbic acid concentration remained constant during storage and between seasons. ‘Meadowlark’ had the highest sugar to acid ratio (25.0). Successful implementation of MH of southern highbush blueberries for fresh market will only be commercially feasible if harvest impacts are further reduced.

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