Develop an efficient fruit handling system for elderberries

Progress report for ONC19-066

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2019: $39,913.00
Projected End Date: 10/30/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Missouri
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Jianfeng Zhou
University of Missouri
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Project Information


Emerging fruit crops, such as elderberry and aroniaberry, are important value-added crops for small farmers in the rural areas of North Central Region (NCR). Research has proven that developing those native fruit crops as commercial crops will increase incomes and life quality of local farmers, and will also benefit the sustainability of agriculture and ecosystem. However, the low efficiency in harvesting and handling berries (fruits) has been identified as the biggest barrier for the development of elderberry industry according to research funded by SARE. Elderberry farmers in Missouri have developed destemmers to increase the efficiency, but they feel that manual handling (sanitizing and rinsing) needs to be improved to scale up their planting areas. The major goal of this project is to assist local elderberry farmers to develop an automated elderberry handling system that integrates destemming, sanitizing and rinsing procedures to increase the efficiency of fruit handling. The developed system will optimize the destemmer, reduce exposure of farmers to hazard sanitizing solution and their labor intensity, and attract more farmers to grow elderberry and boost the elderberry industry. The project aligns with the priority of NCR-SARE in promoting sustainable agriculture and in improve the life quality of rural communities.

Project Objectives:

The goal is to develop an efficient fruit handling system for elderberries to allow automatically destem, sanitizing and rinsing berries, and potentially for other small fruits and vegetables. The specific objectives include (1) survey and evaluation of the existing technologies used for handling fruits and vegetables; (2) development of a prototype of a handling system for elderberry by adopting and optimizing existing technologies, and (3) evaluation of the developed system in performance and economics. The success of this project will demonstrate and deliver an efficient system for handling elderberries and boost elderberry industry.


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Materials and methods:

1. Research goal: Develop an efficient elderberry processing system using automation technology. 

2. Objectives: (1) Survey different elderberry fruits delivery systems, including conveyor and auger systems; (2) develop different prototypes to automatically handle elderberry fruits efficiently; (3) evaluate their pros and cons by testing with different fruits.

3. Materials and Methods:

The elderberry processing system includes two to three independent auger delivery systems that transfer elderberry fruits from different water solution (containers). The elderberry fruits from a destemmer (e.g., Terry's Elderberry Destemmer) are received by the first container with sanitizing solution (i.e., wash water sanitizer, e.g., chlorine). Mature elderberries are denser and heavier than water and sink to deep layer of the solution. The sunk fruits that are sanitized in the solution are collected by the fruit collector and transferred by the auger to the second container with potable water where berries are rinsed. The rinsed fruits are then transferred again by an auger system to a bucket or an additional rinsing container if needed to rinse again. The green fruits, leaves, stems, and other debris are lighter than water and float on top of solution, which will be collected and removed using a sewage pump.

A control system based on Raspberry pi is developed to control the delivery speed and operation of the auger system. A digital scale is used to measure the weight of berries filled in the buckets and automatically stop the augers when the bucket is full. Labels with needed information can be printed with the label printer.

Auger system

Figure 1. The overview of the developed elderberry processing system, including two processing units.

3.1 Fruit collector and container

Harvested elderberry is destemmed with a mechanical destemmer that is designed by the collaborator Terry. The processing system will collect the destemmed fruits from the outlet of the destemmer (Figure 2, left). The materials from the destemmer include maturity berries, green berries, small stems and debris. The fruit collector unit has two functions, including receiving mature fruit to the auger unit and removing the green fruits and debris. According to the density of different materials, mature elderberries have higher density than water and sink to low layer of solution. A funnel shape fruit receiver connected to the auger channel (Figure 3) is designed to receive sunk berries to the inlet of the auger channel, and transferred by the auger to the next fruit collector of the second processing unit (see Figure 1).   

Terry's Elderberry Destemmer  Fruit receiver

Figure 2. (left) A elderberry destemmer manufactured by Terry. (right) Illustration of elderberry collector and container.

Auger channel

Figure 3. Auger channel, fruit receiver and angle adjustable plate. There are dripping holes on the back side of auger channel to allow water dripping out.

The container unit includes two layers as shown in Figure 2 (right). The inner layer is the main container of the sanitization solution for sanitizing fruits. The fruit collector is located at the bottom of the container. The outside container will be used collect water dripped out from the main container. A water pump will be used to cycle the solution back to the main container.

3.2 Auger delivery system

The auger delivery system is consisted of (1) fruit catching unit, (2) water container, (3) PVC tube, (4) an auger, (5) motor and controller, and (6) bearing and support. 


Research results and discussion:
  1. Two prototypes of fruit processing systems have been developed
  2. The systems have been demonstrated to farmers and received positive responses.
  3. Plans have been made to test in the 2022 harvesting season.
Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
4 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
6 Tours
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

6 Farmers participated
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The project started from May 2019 and we were focusing on the system development.

Activities in 2019:

(1) Attended the workshop to introduce and kick off the project. There were around 100 farmers and potential farmers from Missouri, neighboring states and Canada, England. The photo below recorded the geographical distribution of participants.


(2) Worked with local farmers and professionals to develop and demonstrate the elderberry processing system.

     a) Elderberry destemer: can upgrade to automation system in future objects.



     b) Current manual handling (sanitizing and rinsing) elderberries. We will upgrade to automated system in this project


Conveyor belt for the handling system.

A video clip shows how it works: transmit fruits from one bin to another automatically.

Report for 2020:

We planned to complete the elderberry handling system in and spring of 2020 and test it in the summer of 2020. The Covid-19 impacted the progress due to the engineer who was working on this got some health issues. Although the work resumed in the later 2020, some parts were not available due to the restrictions of importing from countries outside US and we had to change our original design. In addition, there were some issues of in the collaboration with collaborators. We expect to address this and figure them out in 2021 summer.

The activities conducted in 2020 include:

  1.  Sample of elder berries were taken for quantifying their firmness, retaining force and quality. 
  2. New design was completed in the late 2020
  3. plans were made for 2021.
  4. One conference abstract was created and will be presented in 2021 ASABE conference. 
  5. fact sheets and papers will be published.

Report for 2021:

Demonstrated the system to farmers at mid-Missouri and southern Missouri.

Completed the design and prototypes of the system.

 Future plans:

a) Manufacture two units that will be used in the harvest season of 2022;

b) Conduct two demonstrations in May and June of 2022 for elderberry growers from other states, such as FL, CA, NY, OR and GA, in additional to middle west.

           c) Participant and demonstrate the system at the Annual Comprehensive Elderberry Workshop on June 9 – 11, 2022

d) Take videos on how to use the machine in July and August and post on Youtube.

e) Publish at least two publications: one extension and one journal.

f) Complete report.

Learning Outcomes

10 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Food safety and handling

  • mechanical and automation technologies

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The project is highly relevant to the NCR SARE’s broad-based outcomes and in high potential to benefit regional farmers. We are expecting that the project will contribute to the agricultural sustainability in the following aspects:

(1) Improving the profitability of farmers and associated agricultural businesses. An automation solution will reduce labor intensity and improve elderberry handling ability. Timely processing of harvested fruit will reduce the potential crop losses and allow fruits to be processed in optimal time period that leads to the maximum product value. The adoption of automation solution will ultimately boost the elderberry industry and other native crops in NCR of US and other areas.

(2) Enhancing the quality of life for farmers, communities, and society. Delivery of mechanical and automation solutions will reduce labor intensity and improve the efficiency so that release farmers from long-time and hazard field conditions, such as serious heat and dusty stress, potential injury of hands, etc. to improve their life quality.

(3) Benefit the sustainability of regional agriculture and ecosystem. Adoption of native crops that are part of the ecosystem in regional areas to commercial crops will benefit the regional ecosystem.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.