Growing Magazine - May, 2013

COLUMNS

From the Ground Up: Packing Equipment

Deciding what's right for you
By Tamara Scully


Selecting jumbo or smaller-sized fruit and marketing it for a special niche can provide a value-added product to customers. Large berries can serve the specialty market of pastry chefs, who utilize them for cake decorations, for example.
Photo by Petersphoto/morguefile.com.

Commercial crop production requires the proper equipment for planting and harvesting, as well as for washing, grading and packing produce. Many market outlets demand standard pack sizes and uniformity of product, and documented good agricultural practices from field to shelf are a must for any operation, no matter its size.

When deciding what type of packing equipment you need, it's necessary to consider several factors: the crops being grown, the quantity of the harvest, the amount of labor available, and the market outlet. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University has guidance available for producers, and it is online at www.leopold.iastate.edu/cool_tools/post_harvest_handling_decision_tool_2.



One small farm studied by the Leopold Center grades and packs 800 pounds of tomatoes with two laborers in less than two hours. At what point would a tomato packing machine be more efficient?
Photo by kconnors/morguefile.com.

According to the data collected by the Leopold Center, small farms are cleaning, grading and packing a variety of produce in some quantity without the use of mechanized packing equipment. At one small farm studied in the report, tomatoes are picked in the afternoon, cooled overnight, and then graded and packed by hand. The farm grades and packs 800 pounds of tomatoes with two laborers in less than two hours. All of this takes place in a cooling room, preventing condensation from forming on the tomatoes. The tomatoes are packed to customer specifications, allowing the farm to safely pack for numerous market outlets using the same technique.

At what point would a tomato packing machine be more cost-efficient? Such equipment is designed to move the tomatoes along a conveyor belt, where sorting for size and ripeness occurs. Tomatoes can be gently rotated by a slow roller conveyor, so packers can see if there are any bruises, and then they're washed with a soft brush prior to being packed in the appropriate containers.

The Leopold Center study found that brush washers are a common piece of entry-level mechanized equipment on Upper Midwest market farms, used primarily for tomatoes, root crops, potatoes, cucumbers, winter squash and peppers. The brush washers were found to be commonly used once a farm is producing more than 10 bushels of these crops per day. At this level, gains in efficiency help offset the initial equipment costs, so growers are more likely to make the investment.

Mechanizing production

Simple equipment, such as the brush washer, can add efficiency to a smaller operation. A simple conveyor belt system allows produce to be visually inspected as it moves along the belt, and is particularly effective for berries, grape tomatoes or other small produce that can be difficult to manually handle for inspection without inflicting damage. Some models have a "trash" lane. Fruit culled into the trash lane is separated from good product at the end of the conveyor.



A&B Packing Equipment's Brusher. No matter how large or small the farm operation, the safe harvesting, sorting, cleaning, packing and storing of produce is imperative. Good sanitation practices by employees, proper cleaning and disinfecting of equipment, and proper storage of product must occur, mechanized or not.
Photo courtesy of A&B Packing Equipment.

Simple roller equipment can help growers to grade produce efficiently, and can be connected seamlessly to packing operations. Grading is standard in wholesale operations, but even direct marketers can benefit from more accurate grading. Selecting jumbo or smaller-sized fruit and marketing it for a special niche - such as small apples bagged specifically for seniors or children - can provide a value-added product to customers. Large berries can serve the specialty market of pastry chefs, who utilize them for cake decorations, for example.

"When it comes time to decide when it's time to buy packing equipment, each farmer is different," said Dwight Sheltrown, who is part of the inside sales team at A&B Packing Equipment, a Michigan-based company. "We have customers that start purchasing equipment with as little as 5 acres. We have equipment to accommodate all sizes of packing needs."

A&B Packing's history is tied into its mission. It all started when blueberry farmer Bob Williamson began researching packing machines and found that the available machines were too harsh on the fruit. He made some suggestions to the manufacturers, requesting changes that would make the equipment less damaging to the produce. They weren't interested, so Williamson took it upon himself to design his own machine and start his own business, with a mission to supply farmers, no matter their size, with gentle and efficient packing machines.



A&B Packing Equipment's Box Filler. "We now offer clamshell, bulk box and wicketed bag filling operations, mostly spurred on by a customer request," Dwight Sheltrown noted. "We currently have customers packing blueberries, cranberries and grape tomatoes on the same machine."
Photo courtesy of A&B Pack ing Equipment.

An example of entry-level equipment is A&B Packing's simple conveyor belt system with three lanes, which makes it easy to sort and clean berries. The equipment comes in a variety of widths and lengths. It can save up to 30 percent in labor costs by decreasing the time and labor needs, while also treating the produce gently, without causing damage.

From there, growers can choose from a variety of packing machines. A&B Packing's High-Speed FL3500 model is designed for small growers. Cups are manually placed on the line. A dual vibrator system keeps the berries from falling between cups and settles the berries into the cups, of which up to 60 can be packed per minute. Adjustable legs, combined with wheels, make this option suitable for operations that are short on space.

While A&B Packing began with berry machines, they have customized machines to work with grape and cherry tomatoes, as well as cherries, nuts, seeds, cranberries and small potatoes. "We now offer clamshell, bulk box and wicketed bag filling operations, mostly spurred on by a customer request," Sheltrown noted. "We currently have customers packing blueberries, cranberries and grape tomatoes on the same machine."

Return on investment

Washing equipment can take the place of bulk tanks, where workers hand-wash or brush-clean items. Sizers grade the produce. Rollers and conveyor belts aid in visual inspection. Specialty equipment can clean and trim radishes, pack green beans or sort stones from crops. Packing equipment fills containers, whether they are pints or quarts, individual cell packs, half-bushel cartons or other packaging. While all of these tasks can be performed manually, mechanization can make it quicker, while protecting the produce from damage and reducing inaccuracy and overfills, both of which detract from an operation's profitability.



A&B Packing Equipment's Evolution 12 Scale. It all comes down to scale-appropriate technology; having too much equipment for the job is just as ineffective as attempting to utilize packing procedures that just can't handle the volume of produce.
Photo courtesy of A&B Pack ing Equipment.

It all comes down to scale-appropriate technology; having too much equipment for the job is just as ineffective as attempting to utilize packing procedures that just can't handle the volume of produce. Think of packing equipment just as you do field equipment: Fit matters, and so does the correct tool to get the job done. Affordability also needs to be considered, but it encompasses more than just the price tag. Labor efficiency, quality, loss reduction and more all need to be factored into the return on the investment.

Increasing the quality and shelf life of produce, while decreasing production loss, is one way mechanization can add to a grower's bottom line. The accuracy and speed of packing equipment mean that less time and labor are needed for a given task, reducing costs. While the initial cost of the equipment, along with routine maintenance and repair costs, must be considered, even small growers can realize overall savings with the right equipment, Sheltrown said.



A&B Packing's history is tied into its mission. It all began when blueberry farmer Bob Williamson began researching packing machines and found that the available machines were too harsh on the fruit. He made some suggestions to the manufacturers. They weren't interested, so Williamson took it upon himself to design his own machine and start his own business.
Photo by Dennis/pixabay.com.

Machines that can grow with your operation may also be an option, particularly if scaling up production is part of your plan. Investing in equipment that can grow with you, rather than having to start from scratch as production increases, should be a consideration in the initial purchase decision.



A Leopold Center study found that brush washers are a common piece of entry-level mechanized equipment on Upper Midwest market farms, used primarily for tomatoes, root crops, potatoes, cucumbers, winter squash and peppers.
Photo by xenia/morguefile.com. 16 Growing

Of the selection of entry-level A&B Packing equipment, Sheltrown said that the company's line of volume fill machines works well for small operations beginning to pack with machines, but they are also appropriate for enterprises that plan on growing. "The machines offer a lot of room for growth, since they can reach speeds of over 300 clamshells per minute when needed."

No matter how large or small the farm operation, the safe harvesting, sorting, cleaning, packing and storing of produce is imperative. Good sanitation practices by employees, proper cleaning and disinfecting of equipment, and proper storage of product must occur, mechanized or not. Whether sorting tomatoes on food-grade folding tables or using the latest packing equipment, safe handling practices are crucial.

The ability to keep the packing process sanitary should be one consideration when deciding whether or not to purchase equipment. Either way, all farms need a written food handling plan that outlines the procedures, documents their completion, and requires responsibility from well-trained employees, whether they are washing produce by hand, field-packing berries, or operating the latest innovation in packing equipment and technology.



To decide what type of packing equipment you need, you should consider the crops being grown, the quantity of the harvest, the amount of labor available and the market outlet.
Photo by jorma/morguefile.com.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.