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Holtzinger Fruit Company has installed a state-of-the-art packing line specially for Rainier cherries.

Holtzinger Fruit Company has installed a state-of-the-art packing line specially for Rainier cherries.

Holtzinger Fruit Company in Yakima, Washington, has installed a state-of-the-art packing line for Rainier cherries that includes optical scanning for color sorting and sizing and speeds up the packing process. The company is also testing new equipment for defect sorting and hopes soon to have equipment to determine cherry sweetness as they go across the line.

Scott Hanses, sales manager, said many packers still sort and size Rainier cherries by hand because of how fragile the pale-skinned variety is, compared with red cherries. However, Holtzinger’s new equipment automatically singulates the cherries and runs them under a camera for color and size sorting, similar to the system used by the fruit industry for apples.

Hanses said automated packaging equipment for Rainier cherries has been slower to evolve than for red cherries, but Holtzinger’s new line incorporates the latest technology. "This is as state-of-the-art as is out there," he said.

The packing line was manufactured in Australia by GP Graders and tested there with Tasmanian cherries before being shipped to Yakima, said David Lawrence, Holtzinger’s chief executive officer. A New Zealand company developed the electronics. The new packing line is portable and can be transported on two semi-trailers to wherever needed.

The company is anticipating starting its Rainier cherry season in California, Hanses said. It will be able to take the line down to California, then move it to Washington’s early districts, and then on to the late districts.

Volumes of Rainier cherries are set to increase because of recent plantings, and Hanses said he’s not sure if the industry has sufficient packing capacity with the current technology being used.

"We’re doing this to take care of our Rainier growers and establish ourselves as a leader in that segment of the cherry industry," he said.

The speed and precision of the line should enable the company to provide a better product to its customers, and better returns to the growers, the company believes. It packs for about 50 growers.

Lawrence said the new equipment should reduce the labor requirement by 40 percent, and should pay for itself within three years. As Rainier cherry volume increases, the company plans to install more lines.

Marketing

Holtzinger is joining forces with Chelan Fresh in north central Washington to market their combined fresh cherry crops this season.

Lawrence said most of the cherries that Holtzinger handles come from early maturing districts in the south part of the state, while most of Chelan Fresh’s cherries come from the northern late districts.

The alliance enables the two companies to supply large retailers season-long, he said.

"We have big accounts, and the retailers are happier when you can service them for the entire season," he said, "So, what’s driving this is, by making the retailers happy, we can secure better returns for our growers by covering all the months."

The two companies will maintain their separate packing and marketing departments but will share inventory information and customer lists, Lawrence said. However, there is the possibility of reciprocal packing arrangements. Cherry packers have expensive lines that they only use for a few weeks a year. By packing cherries from other districts, they can use the equipment for longer, he said. "If we can be more efficient by working together, everybody wins."