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Stemilt taps technology to pack cherries

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Jay Fulbright of Stemilt Growers, left, leads a tour of a new cherry line in Wenatchee on Friday.

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WENATCHEE — Smile, sweet thing. You’re on camera.

Every dark-sweet cherry zipping through the GP Grader, an electronic sorting device at the heart of Stemilt Growers’ new cherry packing line, will have its picture snapped up to 30 times as it’s whisked through the state-of-the-art system.

That’s thousands of tons of fruit every season. Billions of cherries sent to market. Billions, too, of digital cherry “portraits,” each one completed in nanoseconds to determine size, color and firmness by the whiz-bang machines.

It’s mind-boggling to think how fast this machine thinks and moves,” said Jay Fulbright, vice-president of operations and special projects for Stemilt, one of the world’s largest fruit companies. “It’s a step — a big one — into the future.”

That big step, said Stemilt executives, brings local cherry sorting into the 21st century with digital imaging and lightning-fast computers doing some of the work previously accomplished by trained line workers. It’s a system that’s worked for years on apple lines, but has only recently advanced tech-wise to handle more fragile, harder-to-sort cherry harvest.

Fulbright gave tours here Friday at an unveiling of the new cherry packing line — the first of its kind in Washington — for customers, industry insiders and media. Speeches, a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a blessing of the machines and an enchilada lunch were also part of the two-hour presentation in the renovated cold-storage warehouse that houses the new generation of sorting equipment.

Stemilt executives said the new line will boost sorting efficiency, sizing consistency, and grading accuracy while handling fruit more gently. The line will also need fewer employees — perhaps 40 to 60 percent fewer — than Stemilt’s other Olds Station cherry line, but comparisons between the two are tricky.

The new line will process about 12 to 13 tons of cherries per hour and require about 105 employees compared to the other high-capacity line’s 18 tons per hour with 275 workers, who sort fruit visually and manually by color and firmness. Stemilt has three other local cherry lines that operate at varying capacities.

No matter how you look at it, packing cherries is still a labor-intensive job,” said Marisa Alvarado, Stemilt’s cherry line supervisor. “But we’re all looking forward to this new technology. It’s exciting to learn new things.”

The electronic grading machine, an imaging device about the size of two stacked sofas, is made by GP Grader, an Australian company with a Wenatchee office. Its digital imaging sensors and advanced software make possible the analysis of dark-sweet cherries, such as Bings and Sweethearts. The equipment to modify the line for Rainiers, an even more fragile cherry variety, is on-site but not yet installed.

Planning for the new line began five years ago when Stemilt’s engineers began tracking the capabilities of computerized sorting gizmos. Two years ago, they decided the technology had evolved far enough to be used in daily operations. Rehab of the 24,000-square-foot warehouse got underway last November at Stemilt’s Euclid Street facility in Olds Station. Installation of the electronic sorters, conveyors, water lines, packaging chutes and stainless steel catwalks began in March and was mostly completed last week.

The line underwent two hours of testing Thursday and four hours Friday. Further testing and employee training should be completed by about June 26, just in time for the cherry harvest’s traditional peak harvest date of July 4.

You want to see this thing running full speed?” Stemilt President West Mathison asked Friday’s gathering. “Then come back in 10 days to get the full effect.”

Stemilt execs declined to give the cost of the new cherry line. “But it wasn’t cheap,” noted Fulbright.

Stemilt consultant Harold Ostenson said one of the new line’s chief benefits is its ability to assess firmness and ripeness using infrared imaging. “It can judge how soft the cherry might be,” he said, “which means the ripest fruit can be sorted and packed for nearby markets — say, Seattle grocery stores — and the firmest fruit used for export” to Asian and other Pacific Rim markets.

Plus, the line includes cutting-edge packaging machines with the flexibility to deliver cherries to market in plastic clamshell containers, one- or two-pound bags or bulk containers. The new line is also outfitted with experimental blowers to air-dry the cherries before packing and, maybe, improve quality and freshness for the consumer.

The best day of my life is when I got married,” Stemilt grower Kyle Mathison told Friday’s gathering. “But this is another great day — dedication of this high-tech machinery. I truly believe this is part of the journey, the journey of all of us here, to revolutionize this industry.”

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business. follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.