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Blueberry Grower Boosts Grader Sales To US

A Waikato blueberry grower has employed 15 new workers after sales of its colour-sorting grader skyrocketed in the United States.

As well, Blueberry Country Ltd, of Ohaupo south of Hamilton, has created a separate business unit to handle manufacture and sales.

The machine - which was developed with the assistance of a Technology for Business Growth grant from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology - grades blueberries by colour, saving users up to US$75,000 in reduced labour costs every 25 days.

"We're up to 13 machines," joint managing director Greg Furniss says Mr Furniss and his wife, Alison, joint managing director, sold four machines while at the Michigan Trade Fair and elsewhere in the United States late last year.

He says Blueberry hopes to have 24 graders completed by mid-June.

The sorter uses colour sensors and a computer to separate the fruit by colour and improve the final grade.

Fewer people are needed on the production line, which was the impetus for development of the machine, Mr Furniss says.

One North Carolina blueberry grower reversed his "cancel" order after seeing the sorter in action, Mr Furniss says.

"He'd been hit by a heavy hailstorm, and he didn't think it was worth getting the grader because his crop was damaged.

"However, my son-in-law in North Carolina showed him how to work it.

"The guy was so convinced, that he and two of his employees drove through the night to Michigan to pick up a demonstrator, and then drive straight back again.

"They got straight to work and he was able to salvage significantly more of his crop than he expected."

Mr Furniss says Blueberry has taken on 15 more workers to assemble the graders.

"We out-source for parts, but we do the assembly here so we're created new local jobs.

We're also creating a business unit to handle the new work, which is giving us some smart university-educated people."

The machine was "designed from scratch" and is portable enough to be fitted into the back of a van.

It uses parts that are readily available.

Mr Furniss says that this northern summer he aims to get demonstrators into cranberry and grape tomato sheds.

"There is bigger potential there than in blueberries."

And he's expecting to talk turkey when he next travels to the United States: "I'm going to see a turkey-grower who wants to know if it will separate white meat from grey."

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