Automated sorting technology eases recurring labor woes for packers
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Enter most fresh, sweet cherry packing plants on the West Coast today and you'll see a small army of workers sorting, bagging and boxing cherries.
Most of them are sorting. They stand or sit on stools, elbow-to-elbow, sweeping their fingers back and forth over a conveyor belt loaded with cherries, rolling them over to look for bruises, splits or any other defects. When they see defects, they pluck the cherry from the line and place it on cullage or brining belts for other uses.
The work is tedious, and because of that, it's common for sorters to quit after a few days. Others return year after year, considering it good short-term employment at minimum wage or slightly higher.
That is beginning to change as the industry shifts to faster, more accurate, high-tech and cost-effective computerized sorters. Cameras take several digital images of each cherry and computer software instantaneously sorts the fruit for size, color and firmness. The number of people required for sorting drops 40 to 65 percent, saving money and easing pressure, when labor is tight, to find people who will do the work.
But the greatest advantage of the new systems, fruit company executives say, is the ability to improve the consistency of cherry quality and give consumers more of what they want.
"We've been tracking this technology for over five years and feel that it's finally ready. It's an exciting addition and we believe it will help us improve returns to the land while reducing sorting costs," said West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, at the dedication of the company's first high-tech cherry line on June 14.
The new systems sort for size, shape, color and defects, allowing operators to adjust several parameters. Sorting can be by full row size -- 11, 10 or 9 row cherries -- or even more tightly controlled by half-row size. Quality parameters can be changed, increasing or decreasing what's accepted for packing. Light cherries can be separated from dark and spurs -- secondary growth -- doubles and stemless cherries can be separated.
The line is aimed at maximizing premium quality for top export markets.
Computerized sorting of apples and pears has been done for years but companies have been slower to use it in cherries because it's been harder to justify the expense for a two- to three-month cherry crop versus year-round packing of apples and the nearly year-round packing of pears, said Jay Fulbright, Stemilt's vice president of operations and special projects.
Cherries are more difficult to sort because of their stems and many more pieces of fruit are being handled each second than with apples, said Stuart Payne, president of GP Graders, the Melbourne, Australia, manufacturer of the new sorter Stemilt bought. Until recently, computer and camera technology just wasn't up to the task, he said.
The dump tank, elevator and conveyors of the new Stemilt line were built by Van Doren Sales, East Wenatchee. R.H. Brown, Seattle, helped with conveyors and Stemilt built the peripheral equipment.
Payne, Stemilt and other fruit companies would not disclose the cost of the systems, saying they vary widely depending on several factors, including how much of the work companies do themselves. However, Payne said GP Graders sorters have paid for themselves in two seasons in Australia and should do the same in the U.S.
"This technology is nothing short of a once-in-a-lifetime revolution in the cherry industry," he said.
Brenda Thomas, president of Orchard View Farms in The Dalles, Ore., said the new technology will be a "game changer" in the marketing of cherries because packers will be able to differentiate so much more in quality.
"Sizing and grading will be better, much more exact, so there will be marketing challenges," she said. "We definitely think it's the wave of the future."
Orchard View packs about 1 million boxes of cherries annually and is evaluating systems to upgrade from a computerized diverging roll sizer, she said.
"We're sold on the concept (of the high-tech line)," Fulbright said. "We want to run it and prove it, but this is what we see as the future of packing cherries."
Failure, he said, would be defined by not getting good enough sorting.
"How fine we can go with the defect sorter is the question and challenge," Fulbright said.
GP Graders machines handle 90 percent of the cherry crop in the Australian state of Victoria and will handle 90 percent of the entire nation's crop in two years, Payne said.
High-tech cherry lines are also being used in Chile and elsewhere, including California. O-G Packing and Morada Produce, both in Stockton, began using new UNITEC sorters from Lugo, Italy, this season. Prima Frutta, in Linden, Calif., has a Compac sorter, made in New Zealand.
A GP Graders system was installed in Chelan Fruit Cooperative's Brewster, Wash., plant a year ago and another is being used at Polehn Farms in The Dalles, Ore. In addition to Stemilt Growers, GP Graders systems are just starting at Apple House in Pateros. GP Graders are being installed at Blue Bird's Wenatchee plant and at Gold Digger in Oroville.
GP Graders is designing a 40-lane, four-sizer unit line for Rivermaid Trading Co. in Lodi, Calif., that will be the largest cherry packing line in the world, capable handling 26 tons of cherries per hour, Payne said.
Gebbers Farms in Brewster just started operating a new, MAF Roda cherry sorter from France. Gebbers and Apple House began running their new systems within days of the Stemilt start up.
"In our own experience, we are very impressed and have had great success with MAF's apple sorting and pre-size equipment," said Cass Gebbers, president of Gebbers Farms and Apple House.
Gebbers would not disclose labor savings or packing volumes, but said he anticipates being able to sort and handle fruit more accurately and gently.
GP Graders equipment has high resolution imaging and software enabling it to see 85 percent of internal softness and see external cracks and splits, Payne said.
"A lot of it is our software, which we've built from the ground up instead of building on top of old platforms," he said.
Three cameras each take 10 images of each cherry as it rotates in the blink of an eye. The size of the cherry is evaluated across the width according to the connection of the stem to the cherry instead of just the widest parts, he said. The information is instantaneously analyzed, Payne said.
GP Graders also makes grading machinery for other produce and shellfish. It has installed 250 cherry lines -- not all high-tech -- in the last 16 years and is the largest manufacturer of cherry grading and packing equipment in the world, Payne said. The company is opening a factory in Renton, Wash., near Seattle.
Stemilt's line unique
Stemilt's new system stands out, Fulbright said, because it does things that others don't.
One unique feature is what Stemilt calls "Herbie," a mechanical diverging roll sizer that separates small fruit right at the front of the line just after the two banks of cluster cutters. This reduces the volume through two GP sorters. The smaller fruit goes to eight tables for hand sorting and packing. Herbie handles 4 tons per hour.
The two GP Graders units can handle 10 tons per hour and combined with Herbie average 12 to 13 tons per hour, Fulbright said.
While the new GP system sorts fruit faster, Stemilt's conventional Olds Station cherry line handles more fruit, 18 tons per hour, just on sheer capacity, he said. But it needs a lot more people and can bog down to 6 tons per hour when handling a lot of rain-damaged fruit when the GP system won't, he said.
The Olds Station line requires 270 employees per shift while the new Euclid Street plant with GP Graders requires approximately 105, said Brianna Shales, Stemilt communications manager.
The two GP sorters are each fed by 10 lanes of individual cherries. Each lane has four-stage "singulator" belts, each stage running progressively faster, for greater separation between each piece of fruit. Most high-tech plants have only three-stage separation, Fulbright said.
Air drops and water flumes minimize bruising as cherries go into 20 different drops according to size and grade for packing. The line is designed with minimum drop heights to handle fruit gently.
Another unique feature being tested, Fulbright said, is air drying of cherries before they are packaged to minimize decay during shipping.
Two Sorma machines offer flexibility in a variety of packaging options including clamshells, bags and boxes.
The new line is housed in a 24,000-square-foot warehouse. There's room to install a second line. The plan is to do that in 2016, but a high-tech line at Stemilt's cherry plant in Stockton, Calif., will likely be installed first, Fulbright said.
Stemilt is the largest packer-shipper-marketer of fresh sweet cherries in the world. It packed 3.4 million, 20-pound boxes of cherries in Washington in 2012 and 785,000, 18-pound boxes in California. This year, it anticipates less than 3 million in Washington because of a lighter crop.
The company packs all of its Washington cherries at three plants in Wenatchee and a fourth on nearby Stemilt Hill. The new high-tech line offers additional capacity.
Experience of others
Operators are much more important on high-tech systems because they have to adjust their computers for the type of fruit on the line, said Reggie Collins, general manager of Chelan Fruit Cooperative. The co-op is in its second season using GP Graders sorting on a hybrid line used for red and Rainier cherries and is "very happy" with it.
"It takes knowledge and skill," Collins said of the operators. "They fine tune for color, sizes and kinds of defects like mildew or cracks. They have programs for all those defects. It's not just an on and off switch."
The Chelan Fruit system runs at 12 to 20 tons per hour on reds and 3 to 6 tons per hour with Rainier, he said. Half the human sorters have been given other jobs in the plant, he said.
GP Graders is precise in measuring cherry size, which eliminates giving away larger fruit at smaller-fruit price, Collins said.
Defect sorting is almost too good. "If we're not careful we will have a perfect box of fruit and our growers can't afford that," he said. "We can't be so perfect that the growers go broke."
Quality has to be high enough for cherries to endure 20 to 25 days of ocean shipment but the needs of retailers and growers have to be balanced, he said.
Chelan Fruit wants to upgrade two other red cherry lines with high-tech systems as soon as possible, probably one next year, and build a new high-tech Rainier line in 2015, Collins said.
"We're not sure if we will use GP or Compac or some others. We are working with GP and Van Doren as we speak," he said. Payback on an entire system is probably two to five years, he said.
O-G Packing, in Stockton, began using a new UNITEC sorter on May 5. It handled 70 percent of the company's volume of 1.3 million to 1.5 million boxes of cherries and reduced the number of human sorters by up to half, said Daniel Moznett, director of marketing for Grower Direct Marketing, Stockton, that serves O-G.
The system is much faster, sorts more accurately and bruising is reduced, he said.
"Every touch bruises a little," he said.