Tim Sambado

Tim Sambado

New cherry packing technology used in California offers significant labor savings of sorting while improving the consistency and uniformity of the pack, says a California cherry grower-shipper.

Tim Sambado, president of Prima Frutta in Linden, California, said though California and Washington are similar in some aspects of cherry production, there are definite differences, including climate.

“Our warmer climate leads to spurs and doubling, misshapen fruit, and we have firmness challenges,” Sambado said. “Most California packers still use converging row sizers, not parallel sizers, and we market fruit by the half-row size. We do crazy things like pack six sizes all at the same time.”

Like the Pacific Northwest, California, too, has had an expansion of cherry acreage.

Sambado conservatively estimated there are more than 39,000 acres of cherries planted in California compared to 56,000 acres in the Northwest. The potential for annual production volumes in California is 12 to 14 million boxes compared to 25 million in theNorthwest.

About five California packers have had experience with new sorting technology. At the start of this year’s season, California’s O-G Packing, Inc., of Stockton unveiled a 72-lane optical sorting line, claimed to the largest optical cherry sorting system in the United States.

Meanwhile, another California cherry packer, Rivermaid Trading Company in Lodi, installed a 40-lane electronic cherry grading line that will handle 26 tons per hour.

Sambado said that 20 different cherry varieties are packed in California, more than eight of which are in volumes over 100,000 boxes. The varieties come in different shapes and have different strengths and weaknesses.

“The new technology has allowed us to manage all of the new varieties more effectively,” he said, noting that the advantages are more accurate sizing and multiple size breaks, color separation, defect sorting, and improved fruit handling.

“In our own experience, you can target undersize fruit to be 5 percent of the box and limit the ups to 10 to 15 percent in a box,” Sambado said, but added that sizing is not perfect. “You will not be 100 percent accurate. You will still have some ups in the box [fruit larger than targeted for the pack]. But you’ll be able to capture an unlimited number of sizes.”

Also, the ability to change sizes at the click of a mouse on the computer screen is a “valuable asset,” he said. It allows operators to quickly adjust size when a new lot is being packed.

Color separation is another big advantage. The goal of color separation is not to create a lot of color grades, he said, but to have consistent color and sort out extremely dark fruit, which could be damaged or overripe.

“You can uniformly sort out immature fruit and create color grades to match your markets whether it be air shipment or ocean,” Sambado said. “Even with 200 sets of eyes, it’s difficult to sort by color.”

In California, packers deal with a lot of mixed colors, he said, and it’s not uncommon to have 13 different color
separations in a bin of fruit.

Sorting challenges

Operators must keep in mind that vision systems of electronic sorters must see the entire cherry.

“We’ve learned the importance of singulating fruit [getting fruit into a single row] after cluster cutting, and added two banks of cluster cutting equipment to do so. Leaves also cause misidentification of defects, so all the leaves need to be removed.”

Identifying defects requires a more skilled management team than in the past. Operators must program the computer by variety and by lot. “This isn’t a ‘start up the line and go get a Starbucks coffee’ kind of managing,” Sambado said.

They’ve found that the vision technology will detect cracks, though fresh rain cracks are more difficult to identify than dry rain cracks. Also, cracks at the blossom end are difficult to sort. “But the system can identify ‘soft, brown discoloration’ defects that often are not visible to human sorters. These systems can tell if there is a breakdown in the fruit.”

Disadvantages of the new technology are significant costs and capacity constraints. More skilled personnel are needed, and there is potential for downtime and increased maintenance costs.

“There is potential for lower packouts due to better detection of soft fruit,” he said. “But lower packouts to the grower may be offset by fewer arrival problems and improved sizing.”

Last year, electronic sorting technology was used in 156 lanes in California cherry packing houses, representing about a third of the state’s cherry crop, according to Sambado. He estimated that this year fruit in 272 lanes will be sorted, equaling about half of the state’s production, and next year, 308 lanes, or two-thirds of the crop.

Sambado spoke about the new sorting technology during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting last December in Wenatchee, Washington. •