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Fumiomi Takeda, Gerard Krewer, Elvin L. Andrews, Benjamin Mullinix Jr and Donald L. Peterson

Mechanical harvesting systems for processed blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) are available. However, low harvest efficiency and high fruit damage have limited the use of mechanical harvesters for picking blueberries for fresh market to specific cultivars under good weather conditions. New harvesting technology for fresh-market blueberries is needed. The V45 harvester was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1994 to harvest fresh-market-quality northern highbush (V. corymbosum) blueberries in Michigan. The current study was performed in Georgia to evaluate the V45 harvester on specially pruned rabbiteye blueberry [V. virgatum (syn. V. ashei)] and southern highbush blueberry (V. darrowi × V. corymbosum) and included analysis of harvest efficiency and fruit quality (percent blue fruit, percent bloom, percent split skin, and internal bruise damage). Six-year-old, 6- to 8-ft-tall ‘Brightwell’ and ‘Powderblue’ rabbiteye blueberry plants were winter pruned to remove vertically growing and overarching canes in the center of the bush in Jan. 2004 and Feb. 2005 respectively. Three-year-old, 3- to 5-ft-tall ‘FL 86-19’ and ‘Star’ southern highbush blueberry plants were similarly pruned in summer (June 2004) or in winter (Feb. 2005). Pruning removed an estimated 30% to 50% of the canopy and opened the middle, resulting in V-shaped plants in both rabbiteye and southern highbush blueberries. Yield of winter-pruned ‘Brightwell’ rabbiteye blueberry was lower compared with unpruned plants during both years, but winter-pruned ‘Powderblue’ rabbiteye blueberry plants produced as much as unpruned plants in 2005. In ‘FL 86-19’ southern highbush blueberry, plants that were summer pruned in June 2004 produced as much as unpruned plants in 2005, but plants that were winter pruned in Feb. 2005 had lower yields than unpruned plants in 2005. The V45 harvester caused little cane damage on pruned blueberry plants. In rabbiteye blueberries, internal fruit damage and skin splitting was less in V45-harvested fruit than in fruit harvested by a sway harvester and nearly that of hand-harvested fruit. However, in ‘FL 86-19’ southern highbush blueberry, the V45 harvester detached a lower percentage of blue fruit and excessive amounts of immature and stemmed fruit. These findings suggest that the V45 harvester has the potential to harvest some rabbiteye blueberry cultivars mechanically with fruit quality approaching that of hand-harvested fruit.