Blueberry farmers combine forces to purchase a sorter that improves productivity and efficiency.

Two heads are better than one, right? What if the old adage were revised to include more than two? That very notion served as the catalyst that created the West Michigan Processing Co-op in Holland, Mich.

The co-op united a number of independent blueberry farmers who pooled their resources to purchase the new, compact Optyx Sorter from Key Technology, thereby allowing them to meet the high standards that their customers demand.

The former method of sorting they used was simple but labor intensive. Fruit was dumped into a water tank and transferred onto an inspection belt, with sugar content causing ripened berries to sink and green berries to float. Workers stood on each side of the belt and picked out rejects by hand.

This method was very limiting in terms of production capacities, according to Thomas Pascoe, general manager of the co-op. "The [speed of the] belt had to accommodate the pickers' ability to clean the green [fruit] out of it," he explained. "So you couldn't speed up the process."

Limited production capacity wasn't the only problem the sorting method presented. Because of the velocity of the inspection belt, a large quantity of ripened berries floated to the top along with the unripened ones. As a result, the blueberry producers were throwing out good product and reducing their profit margins. Further, if a packing plant cleaned the grower's fruit, good product that had been erroneously rejected became the packer's.

Although the farmers knew that an optical inspection sorter was the solution to their problem, no single grower could afford to make the investment, a constraint compounded by the blueberry processing's short season -- usually just six-weeks.

Key's Optyx Sorter makes optical inspection practical for lower-volume applications. The system provides excellent color and shape sorting in a compact, versatile unit. Lower capital costs, reduced labor, improved product quality and enhanced product recovery make payback fast and easy.

"Most of the growers had performed cleaning before -- they had individual shifts at their farms," Pascoe recalled. "They were familiar with the general way things were cleaned and knew that advances were occurring in the marketplace, (including products like) Key's color sorter." The farmers eventually decided to pool their resources and purchase the Optyx product.

Optyx was the first optical sorter they considered, Pascoe said. An early production unit of the Optyx was quickly put into operation so that the co-op owners could observe its capabilities first hand. "I was taken aback by the way the color sorter worked. It was amazing," Pascoe said. Regardless, some growers initially hesitated because of the short processing season and, more surprisingly, the product's high degree of accuracy. "Some of the group considered it to be a bit of overkill for our needs," Pascoe said. To demonstrate that the co-op would reap benefits from the Optyx, Key installed it on a test basis.

The results? "The machine proved that the growers have the ability to pay for it," Pascoe said. "When you factor in the amount of food it saves you, the volume it runs per hour, and labor efficiencies, you discover the machine isn't that expensive."

The co-op primarily cleans fruit for its 23 founding members, with product pooled together. Other farmers can contract with the co-op to take advantage of the Optyx technology.

Labor and output statistics are used to measure Optyx's performance against manual inspection and other cleaning methods. "We can look at a particular shift running a particular volume of fruit and compare it to the machine's performance," Pascoe said. "If we get 2,200 pounds per hour more with the Key line and use two fewer people - it's dollars and cents."

Optyx has significantly improved the quality of fruit the co-op delivers to its customers. The obvious improvement is the sorter's ability to distinguish between the ripened berries and detritus. This category includes green berries, ones that are red because they are not quite ripened and berries that are multi-colored.

Further, Optyx is able to distinguish between green berries and the green Japanese beetle, a common pest in blueberry crops. "Our customers obviously have zero tolerance for the beetle," Pascoe reports. "Optyx has a greater ability than almost any other color sorter to remove such defects."

Ease of sanitation is another benefit. "One of the great attributes of the machine is its self-cleaning capabilities," Pascoe said. "You may have to dust off the camera occasionally, but you don't have to tear it to shreds and power-wash it. Optyx isn't the type of machine that crunches things up and gets real dirty."

Optyx is designed for simple wash-down, with food-grade, stainless-steel construction, a self-cleaning belt and a sealed optics/electronics enclosure. Further, the system doesn't require frequent cleaning as a result of its smooth lines and vertical surfaces, which don't collect debris.

The Optyx is also user-friendly. Because blueberry sorting is labor-intensive, the co-op often hires younger, inexperienced workers. But according to Pascoe, almost anyone can operate the machine. The multilingual graphical interface is easy to learn and use. Sorting criteria can be easily set, adjusted, stored and retrieved for fast product changeover. And the narrow, self-contained unit - with no separate control module - slips easily into the processing line.

Pascoe reports that co-op members are evaluating others ways to optimize their investment. Because of Optyx's versatility, they are considering marketing it for use in other industries. "These machines are so versatile you could tweak them into sorting plastic gears."