Tree fruit packers believe that future technology will improve labor efficiencies  while improving fruit quality

Tree fruit packers believe that future technology will improve labor efficiencies while improving fruit quality

New technology will touch all areas of tree fruit production in the next decade, from plant breeding to horticulture to packing and storage, all helping to reduce inputs and costs while improving fruit quality, predicts a New York grower-packer.

Harvesting aids and robotics will be big developments in the orchard as well as standardized plantings to accommodate the new harvesting equipment, said Bob Fowler, who is partner in Fowler Farms, a family-owned nursery-grower-packer in Wolcott, New York. He envisions new production aids that will help growers produce fruit at its optimum sweetness and flavor, improving the overall quality before it is sent to the packer.

In the packing house, packers will continue to modernize and adopt new advances in sorting technology. At Fowler Farms, he notes that they have just invested in new optical software and hardware to upgrade their color and defect sorting capabilities. Traceability of each apple is soon coming, he said, adding that future PLU stickers will include barcode data and lot numbers.

“In our situation, we are moving towards a more European style of packing fruit—smaller lines that are more specific and do specialty packs,” Fowler said. Instead of having one huge packing line, they now have two smaller lines for bags and trays. “I see more lines in the future that do specialty packs. If you want to stay in the premium fruit market, you have to provide specialty packs.”

On the storage side, he sees more efficient refrigeration systems in the next ten years, more efficient handling of materials, and a fine-tuning of the way storage aids are used. “Ten years ago, I would have never dreamed we would have a material like SmartFresh available,” he said, adding that researchers are dialing down factors of timing, conditioning, and temperature to improve controlled-atmosphere storage of specific varieties, like Honeycrisp.

Family succession

West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, said the attributes of quality and eating experience will continue to be the main drivers of the tree fruit industry in the future. The industry will need to find a way to increase the percentage of the crop that delivers a great eating experience to consumers.

He expects to see more technology to increase the efficiency of both growing and packing the fruit. “I think there are definitely going to be enhancements in the packing technology driven by the speed of computer ­processing and the quality of digital imaging,” he said.

However, this must be accomplished in a cost-­effective manner, he said. “How do we effectively battle the inflationary pressures we have?”

Mathison thinks family succession will be a big issue in the coming decade, as most of Washington’s independent grower-packer businesses are family operated.

“In the next decade, there’s going to be a high percentage of them that will have to go through some sort of succession process,” he said. “I think most of them will probably still be family-owned in some way. I think the main reason is that Wall Street doesn’t have the stomach for the variability of our industry. This has gone on since the 1970s, where you have corporations come in, in a big way, and exit.”

Internal quality

The next ten years will bring new sorting technology to the packing lines that automatically sorts for defects, soluble solids or Brix, and internal conditions, including pressure, said John Rice of the Rice Fruit Company in Gardners, Pennsylvania. “We thought that 20 years ago this technology would come to the packing house, but it’s not here yet,” he said, adding that any new technology must first be invented and developed into a reliable product and then be produced at a price point that industry can afford.

Bust-and-boom apple cycles will continue to play out in the next decade, Rice noted. “The last five years for fruit growers were more profitable than in the past, and a lot of new plantings that went into the ground are now coming into production,” he explained. In addition, there has been a shift in the East from growing apples for processing to fresh, a trend that he believes will slow down and stabilize. “With all of the acreage in the ground, we have the production capacity to be in excess of demand, and that could easily happen or not, depending on weather.

“We [Pennsylvania] can’t affect their markets, but Washington, New York, and Michigan can affect ours.”

Rice is worried that future fresh apple imports from China could cause a major contraction in the U.S. apple industry. China has been successful with fresh apples in other countries and can outcompete U.S. growers in selling well below production costs, Rice said. China is not currently producing varieties that are popular with U.S. consumers, but they could change varieties quickly, he pointed out.

Bigger crops

Washington State apple crops of 120 million boxes will be more common in the next decade, predicts grower-packer Cass Gebbers, CEO of Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Washington. But with larger crops come opportunity as those in emerging countries eat more protein and produce, he said. “I’m an opportunist. As people in developing countries move away from starch-only diets, export markets will strengthen to 50 percent market share ­compared to the current 35 or 40 percent export target. ”

Gebbers thinks that interest in producing organic tree fruit will decline. “Organic volume will not keep pace with the larger crop sizes. I’m not sure how sustainable organic tree fruit is,” he said.

While he foresees huge strides made in the type and application of chemicals, in the packing and sorting and handling of tree fruit due to new technology, he said that advances in mechanical harvesting will occur much slower. “I probably won’t see mechanical harvesting in my lifetime.”

Lastly, he believes relief from overzealous regulatory agencies must come, along with consolidation of food-safety certification audits. The multitude of different food-safety programs adds chaos and unnecessary costs, he said. “There has to be change in the regulatory arena or we won’t be viable. We’re already working on razor-thin profits.”