Based in the heart of California’s Central (San Joaquin) Valley, cultivating 5,000 acres of peaches, plums, and nectarines, the tradition of family farming has been a part of the HMC Farms’ story since 1887. HMC Farms has spent generations innovating their growing and handling practices to ensure that they can reliably provide their customers with the simple pleasure of great tasting fruit.
HMC Farms’ commitment to great tasting fruit can only be assured with the complete control that is needed to properly handle the fruit after harvest. HMC’s packing facilities are located within minutes of their orchards and vineyards. These food handling facilities are equipped with market leading technology, designed
to efficiently deliver the highest quality product.
“Although HMC is now a large and sophisticated commercial operation, at our heart we are still a family farm, and nothing is more important to us than delivering fantastic tasting fruit to our customers. We are passionate about all the varieties of stone fruit that we grow and pack here at HMC.” Jon McClarty, President at HMC Farms.
However, the challenges of growing stone fruit in the San Joaquin Valley have been well-documented. U.S. stone fruit consumption has significantly declined with consumer buying preferences shifting toward more exotic and imported fresh produce. Over the past decade, several longtime growers, packers, and shippers have disappeared.
“The industry is down approximately 25% in volume over the last 12 years; growers are down 50%. Things have now stabilized with stone fruit volumes expected to stay at the current levels. This means that to be successful we need to work smarter, improve efficiency, and leverage technology to drive future profitability growth.”
These challenges are compounded by the labor-intensive nature of the stone fruit crop, both in the orchard and the packhouse.
“We’ve always had enough people, though barely enough at times. “During the time of the year when we are simultaneously picking and thinning, we will need well over 1,000 people in the field,” explains Jon. “There have been times where we have had to make compromises though, and the recent challenges with COVID 19 have only further highlighted the problems of relying on labor intensive processes”
It is not just labor availability, there is also a change in the quality of the labor available. Older workers have more experience, but they will not work forever. “It’s an aging workforce,” he says, and a lot of the ‘old-guard’ are now beginning to retire. That means that we are now relying on a younger workforce who find the job less desirable and consider the packhouse a temporary job, rather than a longer-term career option. With this increased turnover, fewer and fewer people have the knowledge of how to skillfully grade and pack stone fruit.
“Faced with these challenges, we realized that we needed to change the way that we work. We needed to transfer our focus to technological solutions that automate our processes, and give us the ability to scale our operations, maximize productivity over the season, and react quickly to changes in customer demand” – remarked Jon. “The packhouse was an obvious place to start as the labor savings and productivity gains are easily identifiable.” Jon McClarty, HMC Farms President.
To help them meet the challenges, HMC looked at several companies and assessed many different options. They wanted to invest in an advanced solution that could handle fruit better than anyone else and increase production through automation. At the same time, they wanted a hygienically designed, easy to clean line, that is both futureproof and reliable.
“Buying a fruit sorting solution is a ten to fifteen-year investment and we wanted something that could grow and evolve with our business. We have no doubt that our industry will look very different in ten-years’ time and it is vital that the technology can adapt to this change.”
HMC chose the new TOMRA 5S Advanced, Compac’s next generation sorter. The new 5S builds on the already class-leading performance of Compac’s existing Multi Lane Sorter and revolutionizes food safety expectations: it is the only platform that is truly designed for hygienic operation with toolless cleaning, clip out of place components for easy sanitization and food safe contact areas. With its advanced connectivity features, it is designed to be the digital heart of the packhouse, futureproofing for years to come.
“We were happy to evaluate Compac’s new sorter and saw that it represents a major evolution. The toolless design and clip out components make cleaning and maintenance easy – combined with the improved reliability and longevity of stainless steel and other new materials, this was vital for us. If you cannot clean it properly, it can make or break your business; you must be able to get into the machine to clean it. Legislation and costs of maintaining equipment will only increase going forward.”
“Another key consideration was reliability; we are packing longer and harder than ever before. There is no room for downtime in the packhouse. Having seen the Compac machines in operation, we were confident that they would keep pace with the rigors of our business.”
“Plums are a delicate fruit and we have been happy with the gentle handling that the TOMRA 5S offers; we have not been seeing any bruising or impact damage and are getting more quality fruit in the pack than ever before. This is impressive considering the hygienic design means that most of the machine is now stainless steel and there is no padding on the machine. They have engineered in gentle handling from the ground up.”
“Having evaluated the Compac machine and decided it was the right option, the major concern was then getting it installed during the height of the COVID outbreak. It was a complicated setup in terms of the footprint; and without the Compac support, we could not have got through the installation in time. The solution was shipped, installed, and commissioned all within a two-month period from late March to late May. I have to admit that when we got started I was a little skeptical and we bet Compac’s salesman a steak dinner that they could not get it done with COVID implications -well they did it and I guess it’s time to pay out”.
IN ADDITION TO THE TOMRA 5S ADVANCED, HMC FARMS ALSO INSTALLED THE COMPAC SPECTRIM OPTICAL SORTER.
“Plums are wildly different from one variety to the next. There are approximately thirty different varieties that we run, and even within the same variety there can be a huge difference bin-to bin. The colors and shapes are not homogenous - they can be red, green, yellow, and then spherical to elliptical. We needed a solution that could cope with this variation and still deliver good results.”
Spectrim effectively identifies skin blemishes - scarring, hail damage, discoloration cuts, softs, and scarring around the stem well. Spectrim’s SmartSkin and SmartMap provides an intelligent interface that can switch between ‘defect recipes’ allowing HMC to seamlessly transition between different varieties and effectively handle batch variations.
“We were very happy with the Spectrim User Interface. Our operator was able to pick it up very quickly, and it has become a powerful tool delivering good fruit to the packing tables.”
“With the manual grading it was difficult to maintain consistency, especially as our labor/personnel changed. What we have now is an effective solution that is completely consistent and controllable, and one that scales up and down to meet seasonal fluctuations or demand levels.”
“When margins are so thin it’s vital to maximize the value of every piece of fruit processed. We are now able to make changes based on reporting from Compac. For fixed weight products, overfill can account for a significant loss to packout. Now that we get a report from the Compac Sizer we can fine tune to ensure that we maximize our pack out – cents on each individual pack may not seem much but they add up to hundreds of thousands in savings over the course of a season. Reporting helps you figure out what’s really happening with the fruit, such as damage from picking (cuts category), and allows us to make informed decisions to remedy this.”
Compac’s solution has fixed the bottleneck that was created when we received bad fruit – in the past bad batches could mean that we were hardly getting anything across line, because grading by hand was incredibly slow. Now we do not even have to slow down for bad fruit and can maintain our throughput regardless of quality. The solution has been so good that we have now shifted the bottleneck from the front, to back end of line – the next challenge is getting the fruit into the box/bag quickly enough.
“Compac has helped us to significantly increase productivity. While labor levels have been flat year on year, this season we have packed an extra 20-25% over last year. Labor per box is down about 20% and we are also seeing a better consistency in the fruit packed.”
“You cannot move towards a truly automated process without providing defect free fruit to the packing table. Re-grading throttles any attempts at automation, and productivity. If you want to address downstream process and unlock the next step such as packing automation, you have to be feeding through defect free products and this is precisely what the TOMRA 5S with Spectrim does for us.”
“On a bad lot, we could pack as few as 9 bins per hour; with the Tomra 5S Advanced and Spectrim we are now able to pack 20 bins per hour – with the same number of lanes. This solution doubles the throughput on a bad defect batch day.
“The TOMRA 5S Advanced is a long-term decision and a big investment for the business; it will be part of our legacy as we use technology to optimize our business for the future. Our experience with Compac has been a success, especially considering the added challenges of COVID. We believe that partnering with Compac will enable us to run the most advanced operation possible and handle fruit better than anyone else in the market.”