WENATCHEE, Wash. — Buoyed by record-high apple prices in the 2012-2013 sales season and strong returns in most of the past seven years, many West Coast tree fruit companies are pouring millions of dollars into new packing lines and replanting and expanding orchards.
The high-tech improvements — which industry members call “revolutionary” and a “paradigm shift” — will position the industry for the future through greater efficiency, labor savings and improved quality product.
More than a dozen new cherry lines and a half-dozen or so new or revamped apple lines are being installed in Washington, California, Oregon and British Columbia, said Bret Pittsinger, president of Van Doren Sales, a manufacturer of tree fruit packing lines.
“This is the biggest wave — revolutionary change — in cherry lines in the 22 years I’ve been at Van Doren,” Pittsinger said. He confirmed the company has been installing five new cherry lines simultaneously in recent weeks.
“It’s the new electronic sizer and internal-quality defect sorters. Everyone has to have one, like the release of the latest iPhone,” said Mike Robinson, general manager of Double Diamond Fruit Co. in Quincy.
It’s a “paradigm shift” of increased technology and increased tonnage in the cherry world, Robinson said. Double Diamond modified its cherry line this spring.
While new cherry lines are faster and save on labor costs, the real driver is superior sizing, color and defect sorting by computerized optics that detect softness inside cherries. The equipment produces more consistent quality, reducing price adjustments by retailers for poor quality, managers at several companies said.
Washington Fruit & Produce
“Market expectations are going to go to the kind of pack these lines can produce, so we need to do it to keep up with our competitors,” said Dan Plath, orchard manager of Washington Fruit & Produce Co. in Yakima.
The company is installing a new high-tech cherry line that should handle 20 tons per hour compared with 10 tons on its old line, said Tommy Hanses, operations manager.
Washington Fruit & Produce opened a new $30 million apple packing plant in 2010, and its new 85,000-square-foot cherry plant will open this June. The company is planning to install another new apple line and construct a corporate office building in 2016, Plath said. All will be on River Road in Yakima.
“We won’t be close to capacity when we start the new cherry line so we’ll have to plant more cherry trees,” Plath said.
He wouldn’t say how many acres of apple trees the company has, but added that it has been expanding by 500 acres per year for eight or nine years and has no plans to stop.
McDougall & Sons
Perhaps the biggest apple plant expansion is at McDougall & Sons Inc. in Wenatchee. The company hopes to finish a new 445,000-square-foot facility north of East Wenatchee in August. The company won’t reveal the cost.
McDougall & Sons packs 4 million boxes of apples and pears annually and anticipates a 20 to 25 percent increase in the number of apples it handles in the next five years from orchard expansion, Scott McDougall, co-president, has said.
The plant will have one new apple packing line with space for a second, and there’s room on the property for a new cherry line, said Byron McDougall, director of operations. The new apple line will save 25 to 30 percent on labor compared with the company’s current Olds Station plant, he said.
It will have a new Dutch-made Greefa sizer and sorter with improved internal, external and color sorting and grading. It will pack 80 to 90 bins per hour, which is the new industry norm, and is double the capacity of older systems, McDougall said.
The line will allow hand and automated packing. It doesn’t necessarily have greater automation but will be designed for greater efficiency, he said. The 157,000-square-foot packing room has 200, 2-by-2-foot skylights in the ceiling to augment the lighting, saving on electricity costs.
Four robotic arms will move packed boxes from the line to pallets for shipment, reducing manual stacking 75 percent. Each arm can handle four different sizes and grades of fruit simultaneously. There’s racked storage for 400,000, 40-pound boxes of packed apples that will ship out through 15 loading bays for trucks.
The plant can store 48,000 bins of apples in controlled atmosphere storage and the company has capacity for another 52,000 bins in an older facility a quarter-mile away. Yet another 100,000 bins of storage are in Wenatchee, Quincy and Mattawa.
The new facility is huge, but McDougall said he believes the existing facilities of Stemilt Growers Inc., in Wenatchee, and Zirkle-Rainier Fruit Co., in Yakima, are larger.
Stemilt and Zirkle-Rainier
Stemilt Growers installed Washington’s first high-tech cherry line, with an Australian GP Graders sizer-sorter, a year ago in Wenatchee. This spring it added a second line, with a Italian-made UNITEC sizer-sorter in Wenatchee, and one at its plant in Stockton, Calif. It also added a Greefa apple sizer in Wenatchee and completed a new 42,700-square-foot corporate office building a month ago.
The company’s acreage will increase slightly for the next four years as it plants new ground and replants older blocks, said West Mathison, Stemilt president.
Mark Zirkle, president of Zirkle-Rainier, said the company has fairly new apple sizers and sorters and is looking at electronic cherry sorting for the future.
Van Doren is installing new cherry lines with Compac sizer-sorters at Columbia Fruit Packers in Wenatchee, Chelan Fruit Cooperative near Chelan, Monson Fruit Co. in Selah and two in British Columbia.
Van Doren is also building a Compac apple line for Gilbert Orchards in Yakima and McDougall’s new apple line with a Greefa system north of East Wenatchee.
The cherry line for Chelan Fruit is a hybrid line handling both Rainier and red cherries in a new 33,600-square-foot building at the co-op’s Beebe Bridge plant. It features hydro separators, whirlpools of water, instead of regular cluster cutters to break cherry clusters.
Hydro separators have been around since 2006 but are not common.
A five-year pay-off is possible with the new line, and electronic defect sorting means the company can deliver the consistent quality customers want, said Dale Davis, director of special projects.
“Over the past five years, there’s been a lot of new installations and retrofit upgrades to new standards and in the last two years even more,” Davis said.
Electronic defect sorting has been used in apples for years but optics and software to determine external and internal fruit quality have improved, so upgrades are for that and to keep up with increased tonnage.
Gebbers Farms in Brewster and Apple House in Pateros have been upgrading and adding new lines.
OG Packing in Stockton added 32 lanes to its 40-lane high-tech UNITEC cherry line this spring, claiming the largest optical cherry sorter in the world.
Polehn Farms, in The Dalles, Ore., is using a new GP Graders cherry line for the second season. Orchard View Farms, also in The Dalles, is considering what kind of system to install.
“We believe it’s the wave of the future,” said Brenda Thomas, president.