New technology maximizes small cherry crop


Issue Date: May 7, 2014
By Christine Souza
Erick Stonebarger of Chinchiolo Stemilt, a cherry grower-packer in Stockton, shows off a new, computerized, 40-lane optical sorter-grader that some cherry packers have installed this season. The technology records numerous images of each cherry as it passes through the system and rejects those that contain any defects.
Photo/Christine Souza
New optical sorting and grading technology has reduced the number of employees needed to sort cherries at the Chinchiolo Stemilt packinghouse in Stockton.
Photo/Christine Souza
As packers process cherries from the Bakersfield region, cherry harvest in Stockton remains about two weeks away.
Photo/Christine Souza

A technological revolution is changing the California cherry business. Several of the state's grower-packer-shippers have installed or expanded lines of new, computerized, optical sorting and grading equipment to ensure they ship only the best quality fruit.

Marketers say the advanced equipment will be especially important this season, as cherry growers report they expect a light crop, enough to fill an estimated 4 million 18-pound boxes—about half the volume of last season's average-sized crop.

California Cherry Board Executive Director Chris Zanobini said this means every quality cherry counts once it reaches the packinghouse.

"The cherries that are being harvested look very good, but there's just very few of them due to the warm winter and lack of chill portions," Zanobini said.

The new, optical sorting technology captures numerous images of each cherry as it travels through the system. Computers process the information and the system responds by rejecting cherries with any color, quality or other defects. The remaining, top-quality cherries are sized and packed for domestic and export markets.

"When you have millions and millions of boxes of cherries coming through, everything is great. But in this type of a year, when you don't have as much coming through, everybody's really looking at quality," said Daniel Moznett, director of marketing for Grower Direct Marketing in Stockton, which packs and ships for farmers in Northern and Southern California growing districts. "It is in this type of year that this (new) system really has its benefits."

In earlier years, Moznett said, "we would really not be able to see some of the defects that happen with a season like this, so (the new technology) has really helped our quality immensely."

Tom Gotelli of Stockton-based OG Packing, whose family invented earlier cherry-sorting technology in the 1950s, said his father would be thrilled to see the new optical technology.

"Growing up in this business, who could have dreamed that there would be cameras taking 30 pictures of each individual cherry as it passes through the line?" Gotelli said. "This technology is absolutely amazing."

Grower Direct Marketing handles marketing and sales for OG Packing, one of the state's largest cherry growers. The company added 32 lanes to its existing 40 lanes of high-tech optical cherry sorting at its Stockton plant.

"This (technology) has the ability to detect soft shoulders and what's happening inside a piece of fruit as well as what it looks like on the outside, so we know before we send it if we have some soft fruit that needs to stay here in California and be moved immediately," Moznett said. "If fruit looks a little firmer, we send it off for export."

Another Stockton-area packer, Chinchiolo Stemilt—which also grows cherries in Bakersfield, Washington and Chile—has added a 40-lane machine at its facility, following success last year with a 20-lane optical grader-sizer at its Washington facility.

Packers that have invested in the new technology from an Italian firm, Unitec, say the equipment represents a significant labor savings and results in a more consistent pack of cherries.

Erick Stonebarger, sales/special projects representative at Chinchiolo Stemilt, said the technology yields a more consistent product for customers, which leads to more repeat sales and a higher return to cherry growers.

"This technology allows us to size more consistently, sort more consistently and at the same time, try to minimize our labor impacts," Stonebarger said. "In general, we've reduced labor to run the (sorting) line by about 25 percent, but we now have an additional layer of management for the optical machine."

Moznett said the technology has resulted in a moderate reduction in the Grower Direct Marketing labor force, but many former hand-sorters have been given other responsibilities, resulting in a more efficient harvest.

"We're able to pack product a lot faster, which is good to maintain the cool temperature of the cherries. We're packing a lot faster than we ever have," he said.

Cherry season has begun in the state's southern growing district near Bakersfield, with the northern district near Stockton expected to begin in a few weeks. Shipments will continue through June.

As with other observers, Joseph Grant, University of California Cooperative Extension pomology farm advisor in San Joaquin County, forecast a short 2014 crop. He predicted that "many growers will not pick," adding that even with the prospect of higher prices, it may not pencil out for some farmers to pick the crop.

"The consensus is that our warm winter is to blame," Grant said, saying the weather left cherry trees short of the chilling hours they need to produce a full crop.

"This led to a very prolonged bloom and poor overlap between main varieties and their respective pollenizers," he said.

"You have some situations where one-half of the tree bloomed in one month and the other half of the tree bloomed in another month, which means the second bloom will probably fall off, so there really won't be too much of a crop left," Zanobini said. "You have to have so many boxes per tree or per acre to justify it, because labor is your greatest expense."

While the 2014 cherry crop won't be big, Moznett said, "it is definitely a promotable crop with good things for Memorial Day. We're happy about the fruit that we're getting in and, with these machines, the quality is going to be consistent."

California cherries are sold domestically and exported around the globe, with top foreign markets in Korea, Japan and China.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.