Cherry packers embrace high-tech

of Grower Direct Marketing New UNITEC cherry sizer and defect sorter from Italy in operation at O-G Packing, Stockton, Calif., in May. This machine and others like it are revolutionizing cherry packing with their ability to size and grade cherries more accurately than ever before.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — More Pacific Northwest and California cherry packers will turn to high-tech cherry sorting to stay competitive in the marketplace, the president of a California fruit company says.

Multiple varieties with varying maturity timing and climate and weather variables have long challenged human sorters of sweet cherries for the fresh market.

With annual crops increasing to 12 million boxes in California and 20 million boxes in the Northwest, “we need better quality packs and this technology gives or may give us that,” Tim Sambado, president of Prima Frutta, Linden, Calif., told growers recently at the Washington State Horticultural Association annual meeting in Wenatchee.

Improving quality, sizing and reducing labor costs are the three main reasons the industry is turning to the equipment, Sambado said. Five California packers using such systems for the first time in 2013 saw a 33 to 65 percent labor savings in sorting, he said.

Annual maintenance costs will increase and there’s potentially more down time with the new systems, he said.

About 33 percent of California’s cherries were sorted by high-tech in 2013, it will be close to 50 percent in 2014 and 66 percent by 2015, Sambado said.

About a dozen West Coast cherry packers installed high-tech systems in the past year and more are planning to. Electronic optics take multiple digital images of each cherry and computer software instantaneously sorts for size, color and firmness. The technology has been used for years in packing apples, pears and citrus but it’s been harder to adapt it to cherries since they are smaller. The cost effectiveness for a two- to three-month crop has been an issue.

A multitude of variables affect cost, but a new system in a new building can be more than $10 million, Sambado said. Prima Frutta, California’s largest fresh cherry packer, built new facilities and installed a new Compac cherry sorter from New Zealand that it used for the first time in 2013. Technology doesn’t vary much from one manufacturer to another, he said. All claim to have the best, but there’s room for improvement, Sambado said.

Shadows prevent optics from clearly seeing entire cherries and cluster cutters leave wishbone stems that can be misread by computer software as spurs or defects when they are not, he said. Clustered cherries don’t rotate and can be misidentified, he said.

Cracks at the tip of the cherry and fresh rain cracks can be more difficult to identify than dry cracks, he said. Pinholes from spotted wing drosophila can’t be detected but damage around them can be, he said.

“Operators need to have programs by variety and fine tune them by grower lot,” he said. “This isn’t a start it up and go have a Starbucks operation.”

The new equipment is not needed for varieties with few defects, but California has a greater need because it has eight sweet cherry varieties of more than 100,000 boxes each and it has a warmer climate that creates more misshapen fruit, spurs, doubling and soft cherries, Sambado said.

Color variance is a greater challenge in California and high-tech sorters are a big help in uniformly separating immature fruit, he said.

“We try with workers,” Sambado said. “Two hundred sets of eyes trying to read certain colors is very difficult.”

The darkest fruit can be over mature or damaged but it may not be visible to the human eye, while it is to new equipment, he said.

The machines can separate 13 colors and creating color grades to match the timing of air and water shipments overseas will become important, he said.

“The goal isn’t to have a lot of color grades but more consistent appearance and quality,” he said.

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