When Rivermaid Trading Co. begins packing cherries April 22, it will become the latest grower-packer to join the California cherry industry’s technological revolution.
With a sizing accuracy of 98% and a grading accuracy of 85%, the technology should improve the packer’s and its growers’ bottom lines, said Patrick Archibeque, Rivermaid CEO. The system also should help Rivermaid Trading put out a more consistent product for retailers and consumers.
“We have two customers — our trade customers and our grower customers,” he said. “Obviously we have to satisfy the needs of both of them.
“The trade, and in the end, consumers, desire and require a consistent eating experience, and that’s what really drove us to the technology.”
Growers likely will see better returns because more of the fruit will be packed and sent to appropriate markets.
In the past, hand sorters frequently culled slightly soft fruit. Although the cherries may not have made it across the ocean for export, they could have gone to a nearby retailer.
“If there’s a market for a piece of the manifest, it’s our responsibility to capture it in the production line and market it for a return for our growers,” Archibeque said.
Rivermaid Trading gutted its packinghouse last summer after the cherry season ended, scrapping its old packing line. Installation of the GP Graders line began in January and was completed in mid-April.
At the same time, the grower-packer sent operators to Washington last season and to Chile this winter to train on cherry packing lines there.
Based on Rivermaid’s packing line configuration, no human hands touch the fruit until the final grading before it goes into the pack, he said.
Fruit bins are dumped into a tank, where water carries the fruit through cluster cutters that clip the stems, separating fruit. The fruit then moves through 6-inch PVC pipes in super-chilled water to singulation lines, which use sets of belts moving at different speeds to separate clumps of cherries and line them up single file.
Cameras then take pictures of the cherries as they pass under computers. Within a fraction of a second, computers process the images and send the cherries down the appropriate packing lines.
One or two hand graders then do a final once-over before packing.
At its peak, the system — nicknamed Oz in honor of its Australian heritage — can sort 25 tons per hour, said Fab Santos, GP Graders operations manager based in Renton, Wash.
Operators dial in grading parameters based on the intended markets for each load.
“You can grade an 8-row going to the local market and you can accept a little softness because it’s going to be consumed in two to three days,” he said. “But Korea or Japan are premium markets and want firmer fruit. I can set the same color and the same size but different quality grades because they’re going to different markets.”
The mechanics of the few grading systems on the market are similar, Archibeque said. What set the GP Graders system apart in his mind was the software developed by Ellips B.V., Eindhoven, Netherlands.
“They all use the same cameras, but how does the software analyze the images and makes decisions? That’s where we win,” he said.
Rivermaid’s growers are expected to harvest the year’s first cherries April 21 near Patterson, and they should be run the following day.
Archibeque said it’s a bit disheartening to have the new 40-lane system and what appears to be a statewide cherry crop that’s predicted to yield at least 30% less fruit than average.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of fruit to run through the machine,” he said. “We’re hoping it’s only 30%. What we’re finding now is trees are starting to slough, so what fruit we thought was going to stick and mature is sloughing. It makes us all pretty nervous. So it’s going to be a challenge to market, no question about it.”