NZ: EastPack invests heavily amid "incredible" kiwifruit industry recovery
An "incredible" recovery from Psa over the last couple of years has led a major New Zealand kiwifruit packer to invest in new technology and infrastructure, including the largest grader in the country.
EastPack CEO Hamish Simpson said the company was only packing some 25 million trays three years ago, but last season the figure had shot up to around 40 million trays.
He told Fresh Fruit Portal the growth was largely driven by the gold G3 variety and had created the need to expand packing capacity and capability.
"Ultimately as a packer we're a service operator to the grower and when the fruit is ready to pick you really can't have any capacity restrains around that," he said.
The increase in volumes kicked off a process of "a number of significant upgrades" last year.
The company also reached its "trigger point" at the end of last season that led to the recent purchase of a new 14-lane Compac grader - the first fruit sorter in the industry that is larger than 10 lanes.
The grader has been installed at EastPack's Washer Road site in Te Puke, one of several in the country owned by the company, which Simpson said was unoperational just three years ago.
"Massive" advance in camera technology
He explained the new sorter and its associated technology provided a huge range of benefits, allowing more fruit to packed more efficiently and at a lower cost than with the older graders.
"The camera technology is moving forward massively," he said.
"You used to have one camera looking at one lane of fruit - a series of cups on a chain - and you're identifying defects such as shape, color, damage.
"Now you're flipping it to the new system which has nine cameras. It's taking about 500 pictures of each piece of fruit and it's taking them in a whole lot of different wavelengths."
Using these wavelengths the 'Spectrim' camera technology can grade for undesirable soft fruit, something Simpson said in the past could only be done by hand squeezing.
The grader is also equipped with near infra-red (NIR) technology to look inside the fruit and detect important aspects of fruit physiology, like brix and dry matter.
"We're starting to sort from internal characteristics of the fruit as well as external, assessing whether or not the fruit would have market acceptance," he said.
"So there's a whole lot of things that we're now able to do that just wasn't part of what we did if you wind the clock back a few years."
The grader can also recover fruit from an orchard that had previously failed a brix and dry matter test by Zespri - as Simpson said it may be the case that a sample of only a few hundred pieces of fruit is taken on an orchard with a million pieces of fruit.
In addition, he explained the grader required fewer people to run it, while having a far higher capacity than other sorters.
"There’s all sorts of positives rolling with this," he said, adding the new technology had also been added on to two other graders the company had.
Compac North general manager Craig Hart added that aside from the new line's huge capacity it had "several clever features" and technologies to maximize efficiency and optimize grower pack out.
He said Compac had been pioneering optical sorting technologies for New Zealand kiwifruit as far back as 2003, and it had now become "incredibly accurate and powerful".
"The systems have evolved to be smarter and faster combining gentle fruit handling with labour-saving efficiencies," he said.
"Now with PSA in our wake, demand for Compac technology has been strong and we are building our business and capability in the Bay of Plenty region rapidly.
"We will continue to expand our presence in global regions to ensure we have the right people and capability close to our install base."
Simpson said the industry's recovery from Psa over the last few years had been astonishing, and the evidence was widespread.
"We're not the only ones investing - there are a number of others investing that are in a similar position to us," he said.
"It's just incredible the change to three years ago and the growth in volume. Three yeas ago the site that we're putting in the new grader in was mothballed - it had no people, no graders, and now it has two large graders and will probably do over 10 million trays."
Gold and green varieties close to 50/50
While volumes of gold varieties are set to continue on their growth path this season, the industry expects a reduction in Hayward volumes as a result of limited flowering.
Simpson explained this came on the back of two "absolute bumper years" and was not out of the ordinary. Overall he only anticipated EastPack would see a slight year-on-year decline to 36 million trays.
"Gold continues to go up, if you look at the volumes we're getting very close to 50/50, but that's on the back of a reasonably low green crop this year. So we're seeing this as a sort of one-year blip," he said, adding sizing generally had increased this season.
Rain leads to "spotty start"
Heavy rainfall in the Bay of Plenty a couple of weeks ago in the wake of ex-Cyclone Debbie led to some heavy flooding in certain areas of the kiwifruit-growing region.
When Fresh Fruit Portal spoke with Simpson earlier this week he indicated the effects of the weather would be relatively minor, but the country is now bracing for Cyclone Cook which is expected to bring further flooding.
"It's been a really spotty start to the season with the rain. We are a little bit behind our harvest, but not a huge amount," he said earlier this week.
"We got a lot of rain but New Zealand is used to big rain events so from that point of view it's not something we're looking at and being concerned about, it's just more annoyance than anything, but we're starting to really move into some volumes."
He said there was some flooding on orchards, but the country's hilly landscape meant the affected areas were limited for kiwifruit production.
"The reality is that it’s affected quite a subset of growers, and within those grower a subset of their low-lying orchards," he said.
"We're keeping an eye on it, but most of them have drained, so we're not talking about standing water for an extended period of time. I don't think there’s going to be much impact on volume."