BROOKS, Ore. — Blueberry harvest may be winding down across Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but there is still plenty of activity happening at the Curry & Co. processing plant north of Salem.
Forklift drivers stacked crates of berries from local farms into large freezers on Aug. 21, while workers finished sorting and packaging the fruit as it passed along automated conveyor belts. From there, 8 million pounds of fresh blueberries will be shipped to major retailers such as Walmart, Costco and Kroger, as well as overseas to countries including South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.
Aaron Ensign, president of Curry & Co., said it can be difficult to track so much produce through such a large supply chain. That’s why the company recently partnered with technology giant Intel on a pilot project to test a new logistics platform using blockchain technology — the same tool responsible for tracking cryptocurrencies like Bitcoins.
“Blockchain is relatively new to us,” Ensign said. “We were intrigued by the prospect of working with Intel to explore its value in agriculture.”
Results of the project showed how blockchain can help to deliver blueberries faster and fresher, providing near real-time data from the grower’s field to the supermarket shelf.
Intel began developing its Connected Logistics Platform in 2017. The design works by placing remote sensors with shipments that continuously monitor the location and environment, such as light, temperature and humidity.
Temperature and humidity are especially important for perishable produce like blueberries, which have to be chilled quickly after harvest to prevent them from over-ripening.
The data is then uploaded to blockchain, which acts as a digital ledger for every transaction in the supply chain. Each record — or block — is essentially a timestamp that shows where the shipment has been and how it was handled.
Because the data is shared over a network of computers, Ensign said they can closely track berries and respond to potential issues in minutes, not days or weeks.
“Our goal is to provide customers with the most fresh and delicious product possible,” Ensign said. “That ability to react in real-time I think is significant value, because blueberries are an expensive commodity. The value of some of these shipments is well over $100,000.”
Oregon was the top blueberry-producing state in 2018, with production hitting 131 million pounds. Washington was second at 127 million pounds.
Curry & Co. works with Oregon growers, including Sinn Farms in Silverton, which raises 150 acres of blueberries and blackberries. For the pilot project last summer, Intel placed 33 sensors with blueberries harvested from Sinn Farms and followed the shipments through processing at Curry & Co.
Kenton Sinn, co-owner of Sinn Farms, said he believes the technology has significant benefit for farmers as well as consumers. He pointed to the outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce in 2018 that sickened people in several states.
With blockchain, Sinn said the industry could pinpoint the source of the problem much faster than before, minimizing damage and improving transparency.
“If you can pinpoint disease outbreaks quickly, that’s good for the whole industry,” he said. “That shotgun approach now, it kind of shuts down the whole industry until they can figure out what’s going on.”
Ninette Vaz, Intel’s global supply chain internet of things manager, said the project was successful in helping the company develop the second-generation of its Connected Logistics Platform model, which is now available commercially.
“We see a huge value for this industry,” Vaz said. “You also know the quality has been guaranteed with data along the way.”
Though Curry & Co. has not adopted blockchain record-keeping yet, Ensign said they are “absolutely interested” in the technology. He described it as the future for food safety and handling, and said this pilot project with Intel has given them a solid foundation.
“It’s just taking off,” he said. “I think we’re at the front end of blockchain in general. But I think, as with most technologies, things are going to move quickly.”