HOOD RIVER —
Faced with an industrywide labor shortage, Diamond Fruit Growers in Hood River is turning to cameras to sort shipments of fresh pears, a job previously reserved for the trained eye of humans.
The 105-year-old farmers’ cooperative recently installed a new optical sorting line — the first of its kind, specially designed for pears — which is now up and running just in time for this year’s harvest across the Hood River Valley.
Optical sorters are widely used in food processing, though the technology has been slow to adapt to pears. Most sorters roll the fruit along a conveyor past cameras, but unlike apples and cherries, pears are not perfectly round and cannot roll as easily without scuffing.
This system, engineered by the Italian company Unitec, instead flips the pears gently and automatically from one side onto the other, minimizing damage while still allowing cameras to capture the entire fruit. A software program then sorts pears into large 1,100-pound bins based on their size and grade.
David Garcia, president and CEO of Diamond Fruit Growers, said the $7.5 million machine will replace two outdated sorting lines at the main plant in Odell, and in nearby Parkdale. Angelo Benedetti, CEO of Unitec, was on hand to cut the ribbon July 16, and after weeks of testing, the line began sorting freshly picked pears on Aug. 10.
“So far, it’s doing what we hoped it to do,” Garcia said.
Labor was a major factor in the switch, Garcia said, as the co-op struggled to fill shifts amid a declining workforce.
“Often, we were only able to run two of our three packing lines consistently,” he said.
Not only was labor tight, but Garcia said the old sorting lines had been converted from handling potatoes and were rough on pears. He estimated 4-5 percent shrinkage, or lost product, damaged by the equipment.
Diamond Fruit Growers is one of the largest shippers of fresh pears in North America, with 2 million boxes annually, but between labor concerns and shrinkage, Garcia said they knew they needed to be proactive or risk losing volume.
“That wasn’t going to be an option for us,” he said.
Garcia said they reached out to two companies in Europe, including Unitec in Italy and Greefa, a manufacturer based in the Netherlands.
Greefa had created an apple line modified for pears, while Unitec wanted to build an entirely new system, from start to finish.
In the end, Garcia said they agreed it was time for pears to have a line of their own.
“We saw the future, and we said, ‘Let’s make the investment,’” he said.
It took Unitec three years to design, and the line was finally shipped to Oregon in April. Assembly is nearly finished, though Garcia said they are still working out the last few bugs.
The massive 18-lane sizer whirs to life in an instant, carrying bright green Bartlett pears along an automated conveyor and loading 100 bins per hour. What used to take 70-75 employees to fill a shift now takes just 15, shifting more workers to where they are needed on the packing lines.
“Labor will continue to be a stress for agriculture,” he said. “We will need to continue to invest in technology that will enable us to handle our volumes with less people. Because they are just not going to be there.”
Diamond Fruit Growers represents 85 pear and cherry growers in the Hood River Valley, farming more than 6,000 acres of land. Garcia said he is getting calls every day from members curious to know when the new line is ready.
“They want Diamond Fruit Growers to be here for their children as they take over their orchards,” he said. “It meant they had to invest in this. We really appreciate that, their investment in the future.”