Efforts to intensify Berry picking: 

current harvesting practices and modern techniques  

By Marjut Turtiainen (AFA) 

Photo by AFA 

Wild berry picking has a longstanding tradition in Finland. Today, nearly 60% of Finns engage in berry picking at least once a year, with most doing so for leisure rather than for subsistence or earning income. A 2011-2013 national survey indicated that about three-quarters of the total amount of berries picked during each of the study years were meant for households’ own use. Only 2% of the households participated in commercial collection.  


Consequently, it's no surprise that Finnish berry companies have been inviting foreign pickers for nearly 20 years, to secure sufficient raw materials for commercial use. In recent years, the volume of wild berries harvested by foreign pickers for the industry has significantly surpassed the quantities collected by Finns. 


It has been estimated that only 5-10% of the total wild berry crop is annually harvested. One challenge in collecting wild berries lies in the manual harvesting combined with the short picking season. In addition, berry yields vary greatly from year to year as there are numerous factors affecting annual berry crops.  


Berry locations can also change each year. For example, bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) produces the best yields typically, on mineral soil sites of medium and rather poor fertility. However, during very dry summers, bilberries can be found on peatland sites, while on mineral soil sites the berries remain small and drop off. 

efforts to intensify wild berry picking 

For several decades, there have been many attempts made to achieve more effective wild berry harvesting in Finland. This has included the formulation of numerous development programs within the natural product sector and the initiation of various actions for their execution, such as campaigns and training sessions. 


In the 1990s, the Arctic Flavours Association (AFA), a nation-wide association for non-wood forest products (wild berries, mushrooms, herbs and special forest products), was established. The main aims of the association are to promote the gathering, processing and use of natural products as well as to improve their quality. 


Over the past two decades, Finland has seen the development of citizen science initiatives and GIS-based methods and tools designed to offer insights into annual berry yields and to map forests for more efficient berry foraging. Initially, yield monitoring of the most popular berries – bilberry, lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) and cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) – was done by professional field workers in government-funded research institutes.  


Since 2017, data on berry yields has been collected annually using citizen science. The Berry Observation platform was launched to aid in this purpose (Marjahavainnot.fi), as well as to act as a dissemination channel for the harvest information. Berry maps have been prepared using existing berry yield models and forest resource data. The berry maps are continuously under development, as it has been found necessary to further improve the quality of the berry yield models. 


It is interesting to observe that international efforts are also being made to boost the supply of berries from Finnish forests, especially for businesses in the berry industry. The EU-funded FEROX project, which started on September 2022 and lasts three years, aims to support wild berry picking through development and use of artificial intelligence (AI), big-data and drone technologies.  


One of the goals of the project is to develop high-quality wild berry maps based on the latest technologies. In addition, FEROX will provide berry pickers with navigation and locating services, as well as physical support to improve their picking operations. For example, heavyweight drones, which carry berry loads from the picking locations to predefined positions, will be introduced. 

Traditional Knowledge and current picking practices 

Saying that wild berries are picked manually does not mean that all the berries are collected by hand (i.e. without any tools). In fact, bilberries and lingonberries, among other berry species, are frequently picked using a handheld berry picking tool (“hand rake”). Foreign pickers and some of the Finnish commercial pickers also use long-handled rakes. 


It is thought that most Finns have a clear idea of the typical locations that are good for picking common types of berries. This knowledge has been acquired already in childhood during berry trips with parents and grandparents. The National Outdoor Recreation Demand Inventory 2020 confirms that 97% of Finns have adequate skills for picking berries. What is particularly delightful is that this proportion is almost as high amongst youth (15-24 years: 93%) as amongst older people (75-80 years: 100%). 


Many Finns have their own secret berry picking sites. It means that when one has found, for example, a good location for cloudberry collection, they will often want to keep it a personal or family secret. However, the truth is that not even the best picking site can produce abundant crops every year. As a result, many people frequently visit various forests and peatlands throughout the growing season to observe the development of different berry species. In this way, berry harvesting operations can be scheduled at the right time and in the best locations. Naturally, this method requires quite a lot of time before the actual picking period.  


Sometimes navigation in the forest may be challenging. This is the case especially if berry picking is conducted in remote areas that are previously unfamiliar to the picker. One technique used by pickers is to mark trees to recognize the path that they have walked. However, usually berry pickers rely on their personal knowledge, experience and smartphones to locate themselves in the forest. The problem with smartphone map services is that telecommunication network coverage is unreliable in remote forests.  


Pickers need to carry the load while collecting the berries, which make berry picking quite a hard work. When the picked amounts are tens of kilograms, or even more than one hundred kilograms per day, the pickers are forced to keep the collected berries in certain areas and come back to it for loading. This creates additional work as the pickers need to carry and move the heavy load out of the forest to their cars. 

Results of the recent survey

In September 2023, the 23rd World Championship of Berry Picking was organized in Suomussalmi, Finland. The centre of the event was the market square of Suomussalmi while the competition area was located about 20 km from there. The contestants were transported to the predefined competition area – a stand suitable for lingonberry picking – by buses. At the market square, the public could spectate. Here, AFA shared information about natural products, presented the FEROX project, and conducted a short survey about berry picking.  


A total of 79 people participated in the survey. The results indicate that 85% of them use a hand rake for picking berries. One fifth of the respondents said that they collect berries using a long-handled rake (either using only this tool or besides a hand rake). Only 6 people (8%) collected berries entirely by hand, without any tools. Map services available in mobile phones were used by 15% of the participants. This is quite a high proportion, considering that the respondents were mostly elderly people, average age being 62 years. 


The survey also asked what kind of technological tools and approaches the respondents would like to use to support their berry picking operations. There were three different alternatives in the survey of which one or more could be selected: 1) berry yield maps accessed via a smartphone app, 2) heavyweight drones to carry berry buckets out of the forest, and 3) a robot that picks berries. The results indicated that almost half of the respondents (44%) were interested in berry yield maps and 6% in heavyweight drones. Thus, it seems that there exists a demand for the technological solutions that FEROX aims to develop.

Considerations related to new technological Solutions

With FEROX, the crop locations and quantity of different wild berry species will be predicted. This information will be made available to the pickers through berry maps accessed via a smartphone app, which will also offer navigation services.  


A potential target group in launching the berry maps are pickers who lack local or traditional knowledge of berry forests. More experienced pickers usually know where to pick berries, but they can use the maps to explore new berry picking sites. In addition, berry maps could benefit foreign pickers with limited knowledge of the Finnish forests. Besides wild berry industry, a well-functioning berry map service could also benefit other nature-based businesses, such as tourism.  


However, one significant problem related to FEROX’s berry maps – as well as to those developed so far in Finland – is that high annual variation in berry yields cannot be considered. In FEROX, some weather variables will be considered in the modelling, but the number of different factors affecting the current year’s berry yield is huge. Thus, research and development efforts related to this theme clearly must persist beyond the FEROX project, to produce berry maps that can reliably predict annual berry yields in different regions of the country.  


FEROX’s maps will offer better navigation, locating and monitoring services to the pickers. The maps include high-quality details of the elevation models, ditches and individual trees, so that positioning and navigation is very easy, and can be used in online and offline modes. Using these maps, pickers will be able to familiarise themselves with the terrain and receive guidance to avoid undesired areas, such as swamps. 


The physical support provided by heavyweight drones would be significant especially to commercial pickers who collect huge amounts of wild berries. Besides physical support, the drones could increase productivity of berry picking, by enabling pickers to allocate more time to collect berries. However, the key question regarding these drones is whether the price will be reasonable for potential users. Naturally this question concerns also other new technical solutions that will be developed in FEROX and other projects. 


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