Implementation of StockTrak: Produce Packinghouse Traceability

Cherries, a sign of summertime in the Pacific Northwest. Another cherry season begins, and for many growers, the whirlwind only lasts a few weeks. Like other crops, cherry harvest continues to move north as the season progresses. Up in Kelowna BC, a later July start can carry the cherry harvest into September, if growers are lucky.

In 2020, we have worked with a handful of cherry growers in British Columbia who benefited from the Traceability Funding Program. The program reimbursed growers and packers for equipment and software purchases that improve food safety and tracing at their farms. The funding helped several growers implement the FairPick weighing system to better track who picked what and where out in the field. The FairPick also requires less contact which is important in times of social distancing because it eliminates passing punch cards back and forth between pickers and checkers. I applaud the Canadian government. There has been no better time amid the COVID-19 health crisis to help support farmers to adopt better food safety practices and traceability systems.

However, traceability in the packinghouse is just as important. Maintaining a link from received bins to finished products shipped provides very important information when quality or health issues arise. Implementing an electronic produce tracking system in the processing facility at Valley Orchards is a new project that is taking shape and adding another layer of “agtech” to an already very automated processing line.

High-tech Farming

A recent visit to the packinghouse at Valley Orchards was a reminder that many growers have implemented impressive technology to help decrease labor costs and improve the quality of their produce. The building is a maze of conveyors, sorters, electronics, and optics that streamline the processing of their own cherries and cherries from other Okanagan Valley farms. Out of context, the operator’s station could be mistaken for a complicated security system. Instead of monitoring people in the facility, the cameras and computers monitor fruit as it moves through each stage, from clipping bunches, to hydrocooling, to sorting by “row” size, and detecting defects that kick the cherries off the line. This newer application of conveyors and sorting equipment was not completely novel, but the cameras, computers, and software replacing human eyes and hands makes this packing line beneficial to Valley Orchards. The challenges for the engineers who were tasked to design such a processing line included maintaining a balance between simplicity, features, and reliability.

The StockTrak system presents similar challenges. Implementing a new system, even if using barcodes, scanners, and label printers which have all been around for decades, takes careful planning, time, and several iterations. As the development of the software continues, we strive for a balance between the system’s simplicity with the granularity of data, flexibility to adapt to other processes while keeping the project scope in mind, and implementation of error-checking while maintaining an easy-to-use interface.

I am excited to see the StockTrak system implemented and how it will evolve to help other produce growers and packers improve crop traceability and be a powerful inventory management tool.