A soft fruit researcher at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie says Scottish growers must turn to technology to “stay competitive in the years to come”.
The facility is adapting its crops to make them mechanically harvestable.
Scientists believe it could be a cheaper alternative to picking berries by hand.
“We’re looking to make sure the selections we have, have the traits to make them machine harvestable,” said Dr Susan McCallum, a soft fruit researcher at the James Hutton Institute.
“So the fruit needs to be upright, the architecture is upright, the fruit is easy to pick but doesn’t fall off too easily.
“We don’t harvest them at the moment in Scotland because we grow everything under tunnels, it’s difficult to machine harvest so we have to pick them by hand and that’s definitely where the expense is.”
Scientists say most of Scotland’s polytunnels are too narrow for machinery but believe the technology is there.
“I think the machine harvesting will come in; I think Scotland will have to do that to stay competitive in the years to come,” added Dr McCallum.
“The soft fruit industry to the UK market is valued at £700m and it grows year on year but the challenges are also starting to increase every year.
“We’re seeing the impacts of climate change now. We’re seeing the environmental impacts that has on crops growing.
“What we’re trying to do is look at the resilience, trying to look at different germ plasms as well as wild species to try and understand which traits are giving the resilience to climate change as well as the quality.”
Experts at the James Hutton Institute say labour costs are the biggest financial strain for growers.
They don’t believe mechanical harvesting would remove the need for workers, but that it would support them and help deal with a shortage of fruit pickers post Brexit.
“Every year we ask our industry partners where they want to prioritise their focus in the breeding programme,” said Nikki Jennings, a fruit breeder at the James Hutton Institute.
“In the last few years in particular, it’s to select traits that will reduce their labour costs, in particular picking costs.”
The facility welcomed those with an interest in berries this week as part of an annual event called Fruit for the Future.
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