Blueline Manufacturing Inc. prefers to take a proactive approach to product development.

Instead of waiting for their clients to identify the challenges they are seeing in the agricultural industry, owner Gregg Marrs and his team seek out potential issues so they can start delivering solutions.

“We go out and find problems and then we solve them,” said Marrs, who bought the Moxee, Wash.-based agricultural equipment manufacturer in 1991. “The biggest issue right now is labor costs, so we’ve been concentrating our efforts on ways that we can improve efficiency for our clients.”

Marrs said more growers are coming around to the idea of automation — a fact that has been driving his company’s growth in recent years. He said some businesses have achieved increases of 40% to 60% in productivity by incorporating Blueline products into their operations, resulting in a return on investment of 12 to 18 months.

“When we can show our clients how quickly the equipment pays for itself, it’s pretty easy to sell,” Marrs said. “That’s better than money in the bank.”

One Blueline product earning rave reviews is a blueberry/raspberry harvester that has been shown to reduce fruit loss by as much as 60%. Marrs had heard that berry farmers were frustrated by a lack of options to limit fruit loss, so Blueline worked directly with the growers to develop a solution.

“This machine has really opened people’s eyes about what is possible with automation,” Marrs said. “I think a lot of people in the industry are encouraged to see this kind of thing happening.”

The patented harvesting system employs air conveyance technology to move berries laterally and keep them out of the “dead zone” underneath the bushes. An automated head picks the berries before an “air knife” pushes them onto plates and into a conveyor. The third-generation harvester, the BH-300, is being used in Washington and Oregon fields this year.

“The machine is also selective for ripeness, so the growers have some flexibility to control what it can do,” Marrs said.

An even more recent Blueline Manufacturing Inc. innovation is a fruit harvesting machine that is effective for most varieties of tree fruit.

The self-propelled, self-guided OPH-100 line has been in use around the Northwest since it was developed in 2018. Stone fruit growers in California and lemon growers in South America are also starting to recognize the long-term benefits of investing in this technology.

“The machine uses human traits — like eyes, hands and decision-making skills — and acts as more of a harvesting aid,” said Marrs, who also owns Blueline Equipment in nearby Yakima, Wash. “It creates an assembly line, moving workers past at a pre-set pace. We think this is going to be one of our best-selling products ever.”

Growers who have purchased the OPH-100 have seen their labor expenses decrease by as much as 60%, Marrs said. The only thing stopping Blueline from producing more of the harvesting machines is a component backlog around the country. Wait times for certain parts can be three to six months, he said.

“We’re selling everything we’re building right now, so we’re feeling a bit restricted by the slow delivery of components like hydraulics, transmissions and axles,” Marrs said.

Blueline Manufacturing is currently developing another high-tech system that maximizes spraying efficiency by creating a digital map of an orchard using Lidar technology.

Marrs said his company is always looking for new ways to help farmers improve their bottom line and prepare for the future.

“Costs are going up all the time and growers have no control over it,” he said. “With the labor situation and the increase in environmental regulations, I see more opportunities for us over the next 40 years than we have seen during the previous 40 years.”

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