L. K. Mehra, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Georgia, Athens 30602;
D. D. MacLean, Department of Horticulture, University of Georgia, Tifton 31793; and
A. T. Savelle and
H. Scherm, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Georgia, Athens 30602
Postharvest decay, incited by various fungal pathogens, is a major concern in most blueberry production areas of the United States. Because the risk of infection is increased by fruit bruising, which in turn is increased by machine-harvesting, it has been difficult to harvest fruit from the early-maturing but soft-textured southern highbush blueberries (SHB) mechanically for the fresh market. This could change fundamentally with the recent development of SHB genotypes with crisp-textured (“crispy”) berries, i.e., fruit with qualitatively firmer flesh and/or more resistant skin. Four replicate row sections of two or three SHB genotypes having crispy fruit and three with conventional fruit were either hand- or machine-harvested at a commercial blueberry farm in northern Florida in April 2009 and May 2010. Harvested fruit were sorted, packed, and placed in cold storage (2°C) for up to 3 weeks. Average counts of aerobic bacteria, total yeasts and molds, coliforms, and Escherichia coli on fruit samples before the cold storage period were below commercial tolerance levels in most cases. In both years, natural disease incidence after cold storage was lowest for hand-harvested crispy fruit and highest for machine-harvested conventional fruit. Interestingly, machine-harvested crispy fruit had the same or lower disease incidence as hand-harvested conventional fruit. Across all treatments, natural postharvest disease incidence was inversely related to fruit firmness, with firmness values >220 g/mm associated with low disease. In separate experiments, samples from the 0-day cold storage period were inoculated at the stem end with Alternaria alternata, Botrytis cinerea, or Colletotrichum acutatum, and disease incidence was assessed after 7 days in a cold room followed by 60 to 72 h at room temperature. In response to artificial inoculation, less disease developed on crispy berries. No significant effect of harvest method was observed, except for A. alternata inoculation in 2009, when hand-harvested fruit developed a lower level of disease than machine-harvested fruit. Taken together, this study suggests that mechanical harvesting of SHB cultivars with crisp-textured berries is feasible from a postharvest pathology perspective.