Agriculture, Services

Blueberry Removal: Putting them back in the ground.

When we started this we really didn’t expect blueberry removal to be one of our most useful offerings. I didn’t think it was a big deal to take blueberries out. They seem like such a small light shrub that they would be the easiest of all the crops. It turns out I was wrong, but that turned out alright for everyone involved. They have become one of our favorite crops to work on and we have put a lot into optimizing our process.

It all began fairly crude, backing over rows of blueberries with our big Raptor 800. It was a bit of an overkill, kinda, but it did a pretty decent job and won over some hearts and minds. You see up until that point everyone had to pull them out and either try to burn them or shove them somewhere and hope UFOs took them away.
The problem with pulling them out and burning them is 2 fold, first of all, it’s not like an orchard that averages 120 trees to an acre. Usually, blueberries are planted in rows about 10′ apart and around 4′ from bush to bush. That’s over 1000 plants per acre. For each plant, there is a movement of the machine, typically an excavator. For each separate movement of the machine, there is a cost involved.

So now the blueberries are pulled out of the ground, great… It turns out they have quite a root ball on them. That rootball is made up of a bunch of very fine roots that are really good at holding onto dirt, so now you are shaking each one trying to get the dirt out, even then they aren’t very clean, especially if it is clay soil. Now in that process about half the branches get busted off and maybe a quarter of the root ball is still in the ground. Now gather them all up into a good pile and light them off, make sure you let them dry a bit first. Now you have a pile of unburnt crowns left because all that dirt didn’t shake out as well as you thought. Now you hope they disappear, but they don’t.

The other option is running them through a horizontal grinder, but that still requires pulling, hauling, feeding, then doing something with the grindings.

This is what many have gone through, we had no idea it was such a big deal having never done conventional removal before.

To solve this we apply our reintegration process to put them back in the ground. It is not one size fit’s all, it is variable. Some are over 60 years old and ginormous. Some are up on a mound with all their roots above the average ground surface. Some were planted flat and all the roots are below average ground surface. Some are only a few years old with fine pliable stems.
The challenge of doing this correctly is controlling the bush and roots. Sometimes we use a flail first, then a mulcher, then a rotovator. Sometimes we go straight to a rotovator. Sometimes we only use a mulcher. Sometimes we even go in the opposite direction from normal. Sometimes we use a narrow rotovator, you get the idea… It all depends on the plant. Often a client has either tried to do it themselves or hired someone else to do it. We then get the call when it hasn’t turned out quite right. It’s not because we are awesome it’s just experience gained from doing it so often and learning from our mistakes.

Do we need a client to do anything to help us out before we get on-site? Yes, just make sure all the non-organic infrastructure is out of the way and anything you want to save is marked well and very visible. It is not a big deal for us if you have risers at the ends of the row for drip tubes, we either just need them marked really well, pinned down, or what works best is if they are buried. Burying can be done pretty fast which makes it a really clean process. If they aren’t buried we may hit a few, but not many.

Can a client help out by mowing off the plant before we get there? No, please don’t. This really doesn’t save any work and often results in a worse product as we don’t have control over the plant from the standing phase. It won’t save any money. We have had several clients do this before contacting us and then lament after they saw the process working. We can still deliver a good product if it has been done, but you’re working your equipment for nothing.
The result, when the process is done, is a plant in a million pieces, and that is probably literal. There may be a branch now and then that gets away from us. Maybe a chunk of root crown that is over baseball-sized once in a while. Overall the bush portion should be shattered into pieces less than 4″ in length, most only a few inches long at most. The root crown will be busted into pieces the size of a golf ball and smaller. The roots should be ground away down to a 1/2″ diameter or less.

There should be no problem completing standard conventional farming practices once we are done. Heck, some people don’t even work the field, they just re-mound behind us without even destroying the grass aisle way. A client can finish picking blueberries on day 1, remove infrastructure on day 2, have blueberries reintegrated on day 3, and replace infrastructure and plant on day 4. That would take some heroic scheduling but it is in theory possible with this process.

How is this all done? Well like I said above, it is all about using the right equipment for the right scenario. And beyond that, we have modified the tar out of the different machines. We haven’t found anything yet that delivers the right product as it is off the showroom floor. But that’s kinda what we love doing anyway. We won’t ever get it perfect, but we love chasing after perfection.

The bottom line is: we love removing blueberries.