New cherry sorting and packing technology that promises to revolutionize the cherry industry is being adopted in West Coast cherry packing operations at a rapid pace.
About half of California’s cherry production and more than 20 percent of Pacific Northwest cherries will be packed this year by a new generation of technology, say industry sources.
Cherry packers in Canada are also rapidly installing new technology. That’s pretty fast adoption considering some of the technology has only been available for cherries the last five or so years.
California cherry packers have higher defect sorting needs than the Pacific Northwest, says Bret Pittsinger, president of Van Doren Sales, Inc., a designer and installer of packing house equipment based in East Wenatchee, Washington. “And California’s high, early season prices help justify the costs of new technology. Canada is evolving quickly because their late-season margins are high.”
But the Northwest is not far behind.
From Okanogan County, Washington, to The Dalles, Oregon, Northwest cherry packers have installed new optical cherry sorting technology, are in the process of installing it, or are evaluating equipment from different manufacturers for future installation.
Electronic sorters that accurately size and sort for internal and external defects have been available for round fruits like apples, citrus, and kiwis for many years, said Pittsinger.
“But the holdup for cherries was the stem. It was hard to manipulate the stem so that cameras could see all sides of the fruit.”
The technology’s significant costs also were hard for packers to justify, given the short two- to three-month packing window for cherries.
But today, the gates that held back small fruit technology seem to be open wide. There are a number of players with varying degrees of computerized sorting technology. Packing House Services in Yakima, Washington, was an early entrant to advanced cherry sorting technology with its Red Pearl sorter.
Some of the others with small fruit technology include Unitec of Italy, Compac and GP Graders of Australia, MAF from France, and Aweta from Holland.
Optical sorters use infrared or high-resolution digital cameras to take multiple pictures (30 or so) of a single fruit. Fruit are moved back and forth while under the camera so that all sides are viewed. Computers instantly analyze picture data. The number of cameras used and number of pictures taken varies depending on the system’s particular focus.
Computers use the fruit’s diameter in connection with the stem to determine diameter or size—not just the widest part. Firmness, color, and defects are also analyzed.
The new sorters boast up to 85 percent sizing accuracy or higher, said Pittsinger, a number up significantly from diverging and parallel row sizers of the past that achieved 55 to 65 percent accuracy.
Jorge Sanchez of Northern Fruit Company in Wenatchee has two years of experience with new packing technology.
As the operations manager, Sanchez says the system helps them efficiently and consistently pack a high-quality box of cherries and improves export quality. “It’s the future of packing cherries.”
Being able to efficiently remove defects was a big advantage last year when multiple rain events affected quality, he said. “We were able to run some lots that were rain-impacted that otherwise would have been left in the field.”
And, it’s not just the sorting technology that’s making a difference, Sanchez said. The entire line provides a much gentler way to handle the fruit.
“For us, it wasn’t so much about increasing volume but wanting to do a better job of packing. We are saving on sorting labor, but our capacity now is around 8 to 10 tons per hour—much less than our past capacity that required more labor. Now, we use about 75 people, which is significantly less than before.”
Sanchez noted that they are limited somewhat with capacity because the new equipment had to fit in their existing footprint.
As the industry transitions to new technology, what does improved sorting capability, with its high accuracy in sizing, mean to the grower? Will it change dynamics of the market? What happens to the small fruit?
Peter Verbrugge, president of Sage Fruit in Yakima, Washington, has many questions about the grower impact but few answers.
Cherries are packed at Valley Fruit in Wapato under a partnership between Sage Fruit and Oregon Cherry Growers. New sorting technology will be installed next year. Initially, they plan to put an electronic sorter on their secondary sizing line used for export.
“The technology will allow us to differentiate fruit quality and be able to see and measure the quality levels of different growers, varieties, and locations, including blocks that aren’t profitable,” he said. “But what happens to those blocks that aren’t profitable?”
Verbrugge said he has a block that doesn’t produce high-quality fruit, but always makes money. “I know it’s not a good quality block,” he said, adding that with their current sorting ability, the block averages with better quality blocks. “But I don’t think the block will make it under new sorting technology.”
With the technology comes potential for more lower quality fruit to be kept from the box. “I know that last year (a challenging weather year), 10 percent of the fruit in the box was soft, but you can’t squeeze every single cherry. With the new technology, what happens to that 10 percent?”
As a packer, he can only imagine what it will be like to have a plethora of product SKUs (stock-keeping units). “Right now, we have five to six sizes of cherries. But imagine what it will be like with eight or more sizes, plus color separation, plus firmness specs. We could have 30 different SKUs for fruit.”
Verbrugge may sound skeptical, but he sees many advantages with the technology, especially for the export side of the packing business.
“We believe it will really help improve quality for exports, which is why we’re putting it initially on our resizing (secondary) line where we pack exports.”
Currently, they pack export fruit on a grower-by-grower basis, selecting those with a reputation for size and quality. The new technology will allow them to sort export fruit from a wider pool of growers.
Wenatchee grower Mike Taylor’s fruit was packed last year by the high-tech cherry line of Stemilt Growers, Inc., of Wenatchee. Taylor is also a marketer for Stemilt. He was asked by Good Fruit Grower to share his thoughts on the new technology as a grower.
“Growers are paid on the basis of their fruit size,” he said. “The new electronic sorters will help capture the fruit I’m trying to grow and help me be compensated for it. The technology will enable growers who are producing large fruit to be rewarded for their efforts.”
Taylor added that growers have made great strides in recent years to raise the quality bar.
“Everybody’s really working hard to improve fruit quality and doing things like implementing aggressive pruning strategies and strong gibberellic acid programs and harvesting firm fruit. I’m so impressed with the changes that are taking place.”
Additionally, he says, the new technology handles fruit more gently, which will help preserve quality and deliver a better eating experience to the consumer.
“That leads to increased demand and more sales—things that are good for growers.”
Retailers may have to adjust their product specifications to reflect the new packing accuracy, he said, explaining that improved sizing accuracy will limit the number of oversized fruit that used to unintentionally come in the box.
“There will be new market realities and pressure on the marketing desks to move the lower quality fruit,” Taylor said, but added that retail price plays a role and is a “great governor” in movement of fruit.
He believes the improved quality will be less sensitive to price when product is harvested under adverse conditions.
“This will be super beneficial when we have weather damage,” he said, explaining that in the past, damaged fruit wasn’t packed because the slowed packing lines could not keep up with volume.
“In 2009, everyone suffered and was skipped over,” Taylor said. “Some of those skipped were our fathers and grandfathers, some were our bosses, and even some were us.” •