STOCKTON, Calif. — Following the success of a new 20-lane optical cherry grader-sizer in its Wenatchee, Wash., facility last season, Stemilt Growers LLC is installing a 40-lane machine in its Stockton, Calif., packinghouse in time for the start of this season.
The Wenatchee-based grower-shipper also plans to double optical grading-sizing capabilities in Washington this season with the addition of a second 20-lane machine, said Briana Shales, communications manager.
“We really see it as the wave of the future in cherry packing,” she said, adding it will allow Stemilt Growers to produce a more consistent pack for its customers with significant labor savings.
“It does take the human error out of it, which is why you see a better pack-out,” Shales said. “There will still be human sorting going on because nothing is perfect.”
Vicky BoydErick Stonebarger looks over the nearly completed installation of a Unitec optical cherry grader-sizer at the Chinchiolo Stemilt California plant near Stockton.The project at the Chinchiolo Stemilt California LLC facility involves completely retrofitting the A packing line and installing a 40-lane computerized optical grader-sizer from Lugo, Italy-based Unitec S.p.A., said Erick Stonebarger, Stemilt sales/special projects representative based in Stockton.
Stemilt began construction in July 2013, not long after the completion of the California cherry season.
This winter, operators traveled to Chile during the southern cherry season to learn about the system and software upgrades Unitec had made, he said.
Once the California cherry season finishes in June, those operators will head north to Wenatchee for the cherry and apple season there.
Stonebarger said the company hopes to have the Stockton system operational by early April. This will allow about 10 days for testing and debugging before the first loads of fruit come in from the south San Joaquin Valley.
“We have a decent idea what to expect, but with any new line, there are always going to be nuances you have to figure out,” he said.
The packing operation involves small flumes of chilled water that gently convey cherries from dump tanks to the final packing stations, helping to reduce mechanical damage. Stonebarger said Stemilt opted to use chilled water throughout to maintain the cold chain.
Along the way, the fruit are separated and moved onto rollers that carry them under two sets of cameras that use Unitec’s proprietary Cherry_Vision.
The first set shoots pictures from four different angles for color, quality and defects. The second set images the top of the fruit for sizing. Computers process the information and kick the fruit out in the appropriate packing lane.