As fresh produce packing companies face labor issues, Fresno State University has installed a packing line as the institution seeks to provide graduates with an education that will help fill industry gaps.

The university, Fresno, Calif., dedicated the packing line with a demonstration on Feb. 8. Bee Sweet Citrus president and founder Jim Marderosian, who is a Fresno State graduate, donated $600,000 for the equipment and installation.

"The citrus industry continues to invest in new technologies, advanced automation, innovative research and modern infrastructure to compete in the world market," said Marderosian, in a news release. "Bee Sweet Citrus is proud to invest in Fresno State and the Jordan College so their students are prepared to meet the challenges of the modern agricultural industry."

The new packing line uses equipment from manufacturers Aweta Americas, Decco U.S. Postharvest, Intelligrated, Mid Valley Packing and Supply, Valley Automation Solutions and Valley PackLine Solutions. Forklifts were provided by J. M. Equipment. The packing line can accommodate up to 16 pieces of citrus, stone fruit, or pomegranates per second.

A class has been built around the new packing line. "Fundamentals of Citrus Processing Line" will be taught by Athanasios Alexandrou.

"We want to use it to educate our students and serve the needs of the local industry, that's what we're after," said Alexandrou, professor and chairman of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences & Technology at Fresno State. "In the Central Valley, the packing industry is very big."

With mandated increases in the minimum wage in California and uncertainty for immigration policies in the U.S., companies are looking to automation to solve some labor and cost issues they face. "Automation requires a skillful workforce, a particular set of skills," Alexandrou said. "There is a lack of these graduates in our area."

The packing line features ultraviolet fluorescent lights to check quality and cameras for analyzing. The fruit is then sorted, boxed, labeled and sealed.

Fruit for the program is grown in the university's orchards, and the packed products are sold at the university's farmers market or donated to a food pantry for low-income students.

The class will learn various technologies on the line during the first part of the semester, and spend the second part operating the packing line and manning different stations.

Alexandrou, who will teach the class of 18 students, is ready to get started.

"We'll simulate some faults, trigger alarms, so the student operator has to figure out what is wrong," he said. "Our graduates will have the knowledge not only of how to operate the packing line, but a deeper understanding of how it operates and be able to do some basic troubleshooting."