By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Stemilt Growers Inc. dedicated a new, state-of-the-art cherry packing line in Wenatchee on June 14, enabling it to sort and size cherries faster and more accurately to save growers money.
The heart of the system are two, GP Graders, manufactured in Victoria, Australia. Each receive 10 lanes of individual cherries. The graders very quickly take 30 images of each cherry and virtually instantaneously diagnose them internally and externally to sort by size, color and firmness.
"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, Stemilt president.
He and other company officials would not disclose the project's cost. The company is the largest sweet cherry packer in the world. It packed 3.4 million, 20-pound boxes of cherries last year in Washington and another 785,000, 18-pound boxes in California.
While there are a few earlier-generation, high-tech cherry sorters in the state and one other new one coming on line at Gebbers Farms in Brewster, none of them have all the features of the new Stemilt line, said Jay Fulbright, vice president of operations and special projects.
More than 200 people attended the Stemilt dedication, lunch and tour highlighted by a speech by Mathison and a ribbon-cutting with him, his brother Tate, a national sales team leader, their father Kyle, owner and vice president of research and development, and Kyle's mother, Lorraine, who cut the ribbon.
"It was 100 years ago this month, in 1914, that my great-great grandfather Thomas Cyle Mathison harvest his first commercial cherry crop," West Mathison said in his remarks.
"He had settled in the late 1800s and had found fortuitous luck growing cherries in the micro climate of Stemilt Hill," Mathison said.
In 1964, his grandfather, Thomas Kyle Mathison, founded Stemilt Growers with "a passion" to improve the "dessert eating experience" of the fruit, a vision that is being continued today, he said.
He closed his remarks thanking God and introducing the Rev. Myron Vierra of Wenatchee's Living Hope Church, who read scripture and gave a prayer of blessing.
"Bless all who work at this packing line and keep them safe and help them to see themselves as working for the common good and to find joy in contributing to the progress of life on this earth," he prayed.
Mathison's father, Kyle, likened the new line to a bride, noting they look beautiful on the first day but how they pull through in tough times is what counts.
He noted similar high-tech cherry lines in Chile have saved 40 to 60 percent in labor.
"World famous fruit (the company slogan) is not a destination, it's a journey. This will revolutionize our industry," he said.
The new line was not run during the dedication but was ran for two hours the day before and was to be run after guests left.