En este artículo se describe el programa de mejoramiento en arándanos que está realizando la Rutgers University para poder realizar cosecha mecánica en las nuevas variedades y disminuir los costos de cosechas. Menciona también el impacto que esto tendría en campos como el de la Atlantic Blueberry Company que emplea casi 1200 cosecheros en verano.
Blueberry harvesting is a labor-intensive process, and scientists are trying to help growers become less dependent on labor as immigration issues have created a shortage in many agricultural sectors. Six years ago, Rutgers University's Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension Center in Chatsworth, Burlington County, started an effort to create a new variety of blueberry that could thrive in New Jersey and withstand the rigors of mechanical harvesting.
"Ah, it would revolutionize the business," Egg Harbor City blueberry farmer Richard Lanza said. "That would be a major leap forward."These 350 plants are the best results of the plan's first phase, as determined by Rutgers research ers after much tasting, observing and prodding. To machine-harvest blueberries, the machine shakes the bush and the berries often bruise and get cuts on their skin when they hit the ground. Scientists and farmers hope the blueberries on at least one of these chosen plants will prove more durable, while maintaining a marketable taste and the ability to thrive.
Thousands of migrant workers arrive in western Atlantic and Burlington counties every year to handpick the fruit for the fresh market. Bruised berries cannot be sold fresh, and selling prices are lower on the processed market, which means farmers have to keep finding and paying for labor to keep profiting from the fresh market. That difference usually works out to be millions of dollars each year, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Local farmers might lose that revenue if the nation's farm-labor shortage becomes more prevalent in southern New Jersey.
Atlantic Blueberry Company, the world's largest blueberry farm, employs 1000 to 1200 workers every summer, said Bobby Galletta, who oversees Atlantic's Weymouth Road fields in Hamilton Township, where the Rutgers blueberry plants are grown to maturity. That work force, which many fear will be increasingly harder to find, could be cut by as much as a third if the Rutgers project succeeds, Galletta said. So almost every February, plant geneticist Nicholi Vorsa, the research center's director, heads out to his decades-old collection of blueberry seeds and plants. He is cross-pollinating these plants, creating a new, unique variety with each seed he helps create. During the month, he and a colleague will repeat that process between 150 and 600 times. Every two years, there are 3,500 new seedlings to be experimented with. "He's taking the best of the best," Galletta said. "You just do genetics 101, the whole Mendel deal," he added, referring to Gregor Mendel, the widely hailed "father of modern genetics." Blueberry plants do not take to gene splicing or other modern forms of genetic engineering very well, Vorsa said.
Consumers associate familiar looks with fruit health and good taste, whether they are looking at blueberries or tomatoes, Vorsa said. Consumer surveys show people want blueberries to have a neutral taste, a small, round shape, unbroken skin and a color of, well, blue, Vorsa said. That means the bush that sprouted white blueberries among the experimental crop last summer likely will be thrown out, Galletta said. "In a way, we're sort of breeding for generic acceptability," the 52-year-old Vorsa said. "Since blueberries are not marketed by variety, you really have to develop for the general acceptance of the public."He also has to make sure he develops bushes for several other factors: disease resistance, productivity, life span, heat tolerance and adaptability. For instance, the Sierra variety has berries that can be cleanly machine-picked, but it is hard to grow and blooms late, Galletta said. A successful variety needs to meet varying farming needs.
On top of that, the plant has to be developed for the future, so Vorsa has to match his spawns for the conditions he anticipates existing in 2015 and 2020. Galletta knows those challenges and his enthusiasm about the project is tempered. For this season, he bought 30,000 bushes of a Michigan-grown variety that its sellers said can be fully machine-harvested in two cycles. If the variety proves adaptable to New Jersey, it could reduce his farm's dependence on migrant labor long before the Rutgers project comes to fruition. But Galletta also knows the benefits of developing new varieties. One of the most prevalent varieties on his family's farms is called Duke. It was named after Duke Galletta, Bobby Galletta's uncle, because Atlantic Blueberry helped develop that plant. Its resistance to disease and the good timing of its bloom helped make Duke an industry mainstay, Vorsa said.