Orchardists invest in major technology and energy upgrades

By Drew Myron

Denise Patton randomly inspects pears to ensure the new sorting machine remains properly calibrated.

Diamond Fruit Growers, a cooperative serving 85 growers in the Hood River Valley, has invested $7.5 million in the world’s first optical sorting system specifically engineered for pears.

The 18-lane automated line whirred to life in July 2018, and runs 250,000 pears an hour. This advanced system is the first in the world dedicated solely to processing and sorting pears.

Founded in 1913, Diamond is one of the oldest cooperatives in the country and one of the largest shippers of fresh pears in North America, handling 2 million boxes annually. The company’s main facility is a 20-acre plant in Odell; a smaller plant is in Parkdale. The company processes nine varieties of pears, as well as apples and cherries.

The new line processes 100 bins an hour. This is more than the capacity of both Diamond’s old Odell facility—30 to 35 bins an hour—and its Parkdale location—40 to 45 bins an hour—combined.

The difference is optical sorting: the process of sorting products using cameras or lasers. Depending on the types of sensors and the software used, the machines can recognize an object’s color, size and shape, as well as structural properties and chemical composition.

While not new in produce, automated sorting had not been used in the pear industry. Employees manually inspected each fruit for blemishes and flaws.

The equipment turns pears gently from one side onto the other, minimizing damage while still allowing cameras to capture the entire fruit. A software program sorts pears into bins based on their size and grade. Product shrinkage is expected to reduce by half with the machine’s gentler handling.

Prior to the new technology, employees inspected and sorted pears by hand in a tedious and time-consuming process.

“This is the first pear line in the world to flip pears over from one side to the other,” says Diamond President David Garcia. “All other lines roll them through like an apple.”

The search for a pear-specific system began nearly a decade ago. On the hunt for an automated system, a research team traveled to Europe. Finding none that addressed the unique challenges of the bottom-heavy oblong shape—pears do not roll, as cherries and apples do—they partnered with Unitec Group, an Italian manufacturing company that designed a start-to-finish pear line just for Diamond.

Faced with a labor shortage and the need to maintain a competitive edge, a new system was critical, says Nick Erickson, Diamond’s project manager. The company operates with 50 year-round employees, and 400 to 500 seasonal workers.

“Diamond is investing in the future to keep the company competitive,” Nick says.

Along with technology improvements, Diamond leads the industrial business sector with advances in energy efficiency. Through a partnership with Hood River Electric Cooperative and the Bonneville Power Administration’s Energy Smart Industrial program, Diamond has made significant upgrades in day-to-day equipment and operations.

In the 10-year partnership with the ESI program, the company has made substantial changes. Most notable is an overhaul of Diamond’s fruit storage.

The facility’s around-the-clock refrigeration system requires a massive amount of energy to maintain optimal temperature. At capacity, the plant in Odell stores 70,000 bins of pears. Each bin averages 2,000 pears. Pears typically enter the plant at 90 F and are cooled to 30 F. Converting the refrigerator system to variable-speed drive fan motors allows the entire system to operate more efficiently. It continually adjusts to optimum storage temperatures, ensuring each pear maintains its quality— and saves millions of kilowatt-hours each year.

“We’re getting the same work done with better equipment,” Nick says.

BPA’s program helps companies manage energy use and reduce costs. Formed in 2009, the program has partnered with more than 500 companies on projects that have collectively saved more than 647 million kWh— enough energy to power nearly 60,000 homes for a year, according to BPA.

With Diamond’s new system, every pear is analyzed a dozen times with high-definition cameras calibrated to determine the grade of each pear.

“The ESI program helps Diamond stay very sustainable and very competitive,” says Bill Kostich, who has worked with Diamond on the program.

As part of the initiative, Diamond conducted an extensive energy-load assessment that revealed systems and equipment that would benefit from upgrades, then worked with manufacturers and vendors to determine energy-efficient options.

Along with refrigeration, Diamond overhauled a variety of systems, including dryers and compressors, lighting in the production and storage area, and doors that open and close quickly to seal and maintain storage temperatures.

“These projects save money and energy,” Nick says. “The incentives make it a more realistic option and turn a 10-year payback into a four-year payback. This is just a start.”