Columbia Marketing International and its largest grower wanted more speed and ended up needing it more than expected. Installation of a Greefa sorting machine certainly helped the situation, they say.
High demand for Washington apples thanks to crop loss elsewhere, plus the aftermath of a hailstorm, made automated sorting a priority for Wenatchee-based CMI and the grower, McDougall & Sons.
"We can"t pack enough fruit for the need that"s in the market right now," said Katharine Grove, CMI marketing specialist. "With the demand, speed has been a key factor for us."
The July 20 hailstorm had scattered effects.
"We had a great deal of compromised fruit," Grove said. "Part of a grower"s orchard might be hit with hail but another not. All the fruit was mixed together. It would have taken a long time to look over every apple, but the machine doesn"t miss a beat."
Since the 102-yard sorting and packing line was set up in August, McDougall & Sons has reported volume increases of 30% or 2,400 more boxes daily, according to Bryon McDougall, director of operations.
It was CMI"s first time working with Netherlands-based Greefa, Grove said.
The line starts with an initial hand sort and proceeds quickly to computerized color and defect sorting, weighing and when desired spectrum analysis.
Up to 70 photos of each apple are taken by the technology.
The internal scan and spectrum analysis is a useful option, she said, when targeting export markets and identifying fruit that can stand up to a container voyage. But most domestic fruit is consumed quickly.
The speed and soft handling have saved money, Grove said.
"We"re able to control our costs significantly, which is reflected in our prices to stores," she said.
That"s so despite no decrease in the number of employees.
"We"ve actually increased our staffing," Grove said. "We"ve added two controllers since putting the machine in. All the people who were on the sorting line are now on the packing line. We have so much more fruit coming through at a higher speed that we needed everyone sorting to be packing."