Blueberry Hill Farms, Inc., is a 450 acre operation in Ivanhoe, North Carolina, owned and operated by Chris Barnhill and his father, a fourth generation blueberry farmer. His great grandfather was the first North Carolina native to harvest Highbush blueberries. “Back in the 30’s an average of 1,000 pounds per acre was processed,” Chris Barhill says. Today, the farm can produce an excess of 10,000 pounds in that same space. They also grow rabbiteye blueberries. Blueberry Hill employs six full time staff year round, but during picking and sorting months, they hire up to 600 people or more.
In nearby Manor, Georgia, Heagan Farms was established in 1989, and it is owned and operated by Alex and Cathy Cornelius with their daughters Heather and Megan. With over 21 years of blueberry production and nursery experience Cornelius Farms is recognized as a leader in the blueberry industry. The farm has expanded from the initial investment of 17 acres to over 275 acres of production which consists of three farms.
Heagan Farms offers a unique blend of services from agriculture, commercial ground work, blueberry nursery, blueberry production and operation of the blueberry packing facility for one of the largest blueberry marketers in the United States. Heagan farms processed five million pounds of fresh and frozen product in 2010, “which we expect will be our average for the next few years,” says Cornelius.
Both farms sell fresh berries primarily to large grocery stores in major cities, as well as to private, discount ‘club’ stores, which have now become popular in many American locales. Heagan and Blueberry Hill also sell in Canada, and Heagan regularly exports product to Japan.
Farms seek faster output; higher grade product for increased profitability
Until recently, both operations relied on basic automation and/or manual labor to sort berries during harvest. “We installed our first electronic ‘paddle’ sorter in the late nineties,” says Cornelius. “It was adequate, but as our crop increased and we took on processing from nearby farms, we were limited by the slower paddle speeds, and had to supplement it with manual sorting just to stay ahead.”
Then in June 2009, the area experienced twelve straight days of rain, which stopped all picking. “When the skies cleared and we resumed sorting, this equipment couldn’t move fruit down the line fast enough; it was simply overwhelmed,” he says. That’s when he approached Bill Crowley, BEST Sorting’s agent responsible for the area. An arrangement was made to quickly ship and install a Primus™ optical and laser sorter in the shed, and production sped up significantly. Its high-speed, thin and round transport belts gently moves berries quickly without compromising inspection accuracy compared to other sorters. “It’s great for fresh produce and excellent for process. The Primus™ ability to determine precise berry color is excellent because of its high definition optical system. We can easily adjust sensitivity on berry color thanks to the system’s flexibility.”
The system’s laser produces a highly concentrated light beam, which reliably detects overripe and soft berries. “One of the big advantages of the Primus™ is, as the berries are changing throughout the season, sometimes day by day or week by week, the machine allows us to easily adjust, so we are able to sort to perfection.” Cornelius adds.
Since the implementation of the BEST equipment, Heagan Farms saw its US Department of Agriculture (USDA) grade levels continually rise, thanks to more precise identification. “This, of course, lets you charge a more advantageous price for your product. Today, Primus™ is instrumental in helping us process five million pounds of berries each year.”
BEST’s technology is easy to use; lowers customer rejections versus manual systems
“Each year, it was more difficult for sorters working large tables in the shed to effectively keep up with Blueberry Hill’s volume,” Barnhill says. “And despite repeated shift rotations to minimize monotony and the errors that result, less than perfect product sometimes got mixed with the good and vice versa.”
Barnhill first saw BEST Sorting’s Primus™ optical and laser unit last year in North Carolina at another packaging shed where soft berries and hail damaged berries were sorted out.
“Unlike many professions where trade and price secrets are commonplace, blueberry farmers all talk to one another, and openly share information for the common good,” he says. He asked around and determined the Primus system could help increase his yield of fresh berries versus processed berries, which can sell at considerably more per pound, while reducing hand sorting labor, with continuous increased throughput. This way, he could budget for more hands picking in the field for increased yield.
BEST agent Crowley met with Barnhill and planned the Primus™ implementation at Blueberry Hill Farms. Both Barnhill and Cornelius agreed that the other sorting machinery simply couldn’t move as much product as the Primus™ solution, and do so as gently and accurately. Both also praised the system’s ‘user-friendly’ operation using a graphical user interface that easily manages the unit, even
allowing frame-grabs of the product to help define what’s good or bad.
“People can easily run these systems. Once you show someone the various display screens, it’s so self-explanatory that it’s easy to remember. Resetting measurement parameters for fresh versus process fruit is also simple, which lets us convert quickly and efficiently without slowing the line.” The Primus™ sorter can be easily adapted to the fruit’s condition, say following hail or a heavy rainstorm which can damage or otherwise affect berry appearance. Severe weather is a regular challenge for both farms.
“This technology lets us identify and sell twenty percent (or plus, depending on the season) more fresh berries by accurately removing soft product that couldn’t always be identified by hand or other sorters. These berries would need to go to process, where we get less money for.”
The Primus™ system also permitted Blueberry Hill to pack croatan blueberries fresh, instead of process, and over a longer time frame (into second picking) thereby increasing profitability. Last year, labor arrived late in the season, resulting in over ripe croatan blueberries, that needed to be packed fresh. Thanks to the Primus™, Blueberry Hill was able to adapt to the conditions.
Both farmers have seen significantly lower rejection of their product by customers for considerable savings. Barnhill says: “If your shipment is turned down, you have to dump it and ‘eat it’, meaning you absorb the cost of your efforts on behalf of that customer. We’ve seen zero turndowns thanks to this technology.”