Smaller-scale grower Pioneer Potatoes achieves big results with grading technology

Pioneer Potatoes Potato Grading Technology Smaller-scale Farm with Big Grading Results

Pioneer Potatoes Potato Grading Technology Smaller-scale Farm with Big Grading Results

Abril 18, 2024

Pioneer Potatoes understands the fundamentals of effectiveness and efficiency in grading and provisioning potatoes. 

Despite a relatively smaller capacity in terms of acreage, Pioneer places its focus on delivering the best possible quality. 

And with success! Pioneer Potatoes maximizes its harvest with a large percentage of A-size, premium quality potatoes.

However, every business has its challenges. Recognizing the need to stay competitive with its neighboring Skagit Valley growers, Pioneer Potatoes embraced optical grading technology as an essential step in that process.

Over the past few years, Pioneer Potatoes has faced the following challenges: 
 

  • Difficulty in finding and retaining workers throughout the entire season, making it difficult to maintain an efficient operation throughout the year.
  • Labor costs (salaries and overtime payments) continued to rise and competitors were investing in automation. This combination made it difficult to remain competitive with a higher per pound cost.
  • You can't compete on quality consistency with manual grading when everyone else is utilizing advanced grading technology. Customers started asking questions.
  • With manual sorting, it is very difficult to achieve the desired quality consistency because people, individually, and collectively, are inconsistent in defect detection, especially across the course of a long day or season. Additionally, it is difficult for people to detect some of the complex defects that can be identified with technology.
  • When sorting by hand, inconsistent grading results in potatoes ending up in the wrong grades or to be classified as waste by mistake. This impacts our ability to maximize the value of every potato.
  • With manual grading, it was difficult to quickly change grading standards to address dynamic market and customer needs.

Every challenge offers an opportunity for a solution. Pioneers Potatoes’ found solutions to satisfy their customer’s needs. 

Following are just some of the improvements that Pioneer Potatoes achieved: 
 

  • Monumental cost savings by reducing our workforce by 50%.
  • Improved product quality through powerful defect detection and consistent grading.
  • Accurate classification across all grades optimizes crop value and minimizes waste.

Wylie Thulen, Owner of Pioneer Potatoes:
 

"I am happy and proud that we, as a relatively small family farm, have been able to effectively deploy and utilize Ellips-Elisam’s potato grading and packing technology. Our cooperation with the Ellips team feels like an addition to our family."

"I feel a personal sense of loyalty to you. This is an advancement that I didn’t think we could really make. But now we have it, it’s kind of amazing for us. I know that I am the customer, but I am grateful that I can use this grading technology every day."

About Pioneer Potatoes 

Pioneer Potatoes, a relatively small family farm in the Skagit Valley of Washington state, has been specializing in potato growing, packing, and shipping for the past 25 years. With a farming legacy spanning over 150 years and encompassing various other produce, Pioneer Potatoes stands as a testament to generations of agricultural expertise. 

Though not cultivating as many acres as neighboring farms in the Skagit Valley, Pioneer Potatoes is dedicated to maximizing the quality of its harvests from the land it tends. Unlike larger operations, Pioneer Potatoes cannot rely on quantity to supplement revenues. Instead, the focus remains on delivering exceptional quality from the limited acres under cultivation. 

At Pioneer Potatoes, there's no room for the mindset of "we'll eventually achieve quality" or "we'll attain the right sizes with volumes." Every effort is directed towards maximizing the farm's potential, ensuring each crop meets stringent quality standards and offers optimal size. This dedication to excellence underscores Pioneer Potatoes' commitment to providing customers with superior produce, regardless of scale.

Focus on quality and big sizes. 

At Pioneer Potatoes, the focus is on providing ample top-quality potatoes. The farm primarily sells first and second label products, both of premium quality (USA Number 1). With a higher proportion of large A-size potatoes, most of the produce is directed towards premium supermarkets and restaurants that prioritize A-quality. Potatoes that don't meet the top grade (USA Number 2) are sold to discount stores.

Nationwide and across borders. Everyone wants Pioneer quality

Although the primary focus lies in the western regions of the country, markets on the east coast are also reached by Pioneer Potatoes. In addition to domestic markets, shipments extend to Canada and numerous overseas markets. As an international company, Pioneer Potatoes boasts extensive experience in meeting the industry and market standards required by each country.

This quality must also be maintained during the journey.

When shipping internationally, particularly to destinations like Taiwan and Tahiti, strict measures must be adhered to in order to prevent the spread of diseases. Potatoes must meet specific criteria and maintain their quality throughout the shipping process, as diseases can easily spread to other potatoes during export.

Unlike certain commodities such as cherries, potatoes do not always receive ideal cooling conditions during transportation. Therefore, Pioneer Potatoes need to be capable of withstanding these conditions to ensure their quality upon arrival.

 

Pioneer Potatoes

Pioneer Potatoes

Main Goals and Challenges

It's simple. Like any potato grower, the goal is to deliver consistent quality to customers regardless of the crop's quality. Of course, the aim is to achieve this efficiently to keep costs as low as possible. Given the situation in the labor market, moving towards automation is a necessity. All neighboring growers switched to Ellips-Elisam machines and achieved better grading results at lower costs, creating a new reality.

You can't compete on consistency with manual sorting.

Previously, the grading and packing process at Pioneer Potatoes utilized traditional industry methods, including mechanical sizing and teams of workers performing manual sorting. While the mechanical sizer created designated sizes, the accuracy could vary significantly depending on size and shape.

All other grading functions were manual, relying on individuals to ensure correct sizes and determine whether each potato was a reject, lower grade, or premium grade.

This approach placed a heavy responsibility on the workers, who strived to achieve desired results. However, it became evident that automation, offering more consistent grading and increased throughput, would be necessary to effectively compete in the market.

 

Traditional Potato sizer

Traditional Potato sizer

What were the main motivations for choosing Ellips-Elisam?

Pioneer Potatoes opted for the Ellips-Elisam system based on a combination of factors. Firstly, there was a lot of buzz and talk about their solution within the industry, which naturally caught the attention. Secondly, neighboring farms had already adopted this technology, and witnessing it in action firsthand made a big impression.

There was some prior exposure to similar Ellips systems used for apples and cherries, but observing its effectiveness with potatoes, especially when they were just a stone's throw away from the facility, made it more convincing.

Seeing its success nearby made the team believe it could work just as well for the operation. Lastly, John Albert also played a major role. He is a good salesperson, knows what he is talking about, and he’s local. He grew up 20 minutes from the place. He knows the valley, and that’s a huge advantage. 

 

John and Wylie Thulen with the advanced camerabox of Ellips Grading technology

John and Wylie Thulen with the advanced camerabox of Ellips Grading technology

Monumental cost savings by reducing our workforce by 50%.

Potato grading technology is also interesting for smaller potato farms. There are a lot of reasons why it was done. The cost savings alone were huge. The workforce was managed to be cut in half; now the entire line can be operated with just 12 people.

It's bittersweet for a family business to reduce manpower, but from a business perspective, staying competitive requires careful calculation. In this case, the state of Washington raised wages and overtime payments, making it tough to afford and retain a large workforce.

Reliance on manual labor also posed several risks. For example, there was dependence on finding and retaining sufficient staff every year. Based on labor reductions alone, the investment will be justified in 4 to 5 years. In addition to labor savings, capacity has been increased, product quality improved, and the ability to address customers’ specific needs enhanced.

Improved product quality and consistency gives you complete control

Consistency in quality means everything to the company. This technology has significantly boosted the reliability and consistency of the grading results. The Ellips grading system doesn't take sick days or get tired; it runs continuously according to the chosen settings.

Its grading capabilities can be relied upon to identify product issues accurately and consistently, ensuring uniformity in the produce boxes. This consistency is fantastic for customers because they always know what they're getting.

Previously, there were instances of losing some of the workforce toward the end of the season, which made it difficult to maintain product quality. Now, the company has full control with just 12 people. It could actually operate with an even smaller staff; however, occasionally additional staff is required for other projects. 

 

The Ellips system handles reds, yellows and white potatoes effectively

The Ellips system handles reds, yellows and white potatoes effectively

Powerful defect detection that’s fit your (and your customer’s) individual needs

Wylie Thulen:
 

"The Ellips technology is fantastic for many reasons. One of the coolest things is its flexibility. When we got it, I didn't realize how much we could customize it based on our specific needs. It comes with a bunch of ready-to-use options, but the real magic is how adaptable it is."

"You can tweak it to suit your different potato varieties, fields and products. It's like having a solution that can be perfectly tailored for each batch. Instead of relying on someone's eyes to spot defects, these cameras catch everything, every time. And, if you need to get rid of something super specific, like a tiny black dot, you can program it to do just that."

Easy-peasy and challenging defects

The Ellips system handles reds, yellows and white potatoes effectively. That said, each color requires different programs that are focused on identifying a myriad of defects on different colored backgrounds. What’s easy on reds may be more difficult on yellows and vice versa.

For example, it may be bit trickier to distinguish certain defects on yellow potatoes where certain defects have a color very similar to the potato itself.

However, the preset functions are impressive at finding various issues like black spots, wormholes or rot caused by bugs or field-related problems. It's also very effective at detecting greening, scab and silver scurf. Although the system already provides good results for virtually all defects, Ellips will be releasing a True-AI solution in 2024 which will further improve accuracy on the most challenging defects. 

 

Pioneer Potatoes is very pleased with the throughput of the Elisam grading machine

Pioneer Potatoes is very pleased with the throughput of the Elisam grading machine

More freedom with throughput improvements

Wylie Thulen:
 

"We handle about 10,000 tons yearly, which is roughly 20 million pounds. Currently, our processing speed consistently is approximately 15 tons per hour, up from our previous 12 tons. We invested in a 6-lane machine, with 4 “active”. This means that in the future, we could 'activate' 2 additional lanes and ramp up to a minimum of 22 tons per hour. Increasing our processing speed would make things even easier."

"For instance, we could work fewer days in a week, maybe just four, or adjust our work hours from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM instead of the usual 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM. We might not need to run the machine full-time; perhaps three days a week would suffice, leaving the other two for packing."

"This additional flexibility could facilitate more desirable work schedules for our family and employees. Generally, when people work less but maintain their income, they tend to be happier. That's something we're aiming for in the future."

Accurate classification of different quality classes and what’s truly waste.

Wylie Thulen:
 

"Previously, our quality control relied on a single person who decided which grade a batch of potatoes fit into – whether it was top-tier (first label), slightly lower (second label), or a lower grade (number 2). This decision heavily influenced what we packed for sale. Our 'Ellips' back then was a person named Cesar, and although the system worked, we sometimes overpacked more good produce than necessary, causing issues."

"Similarly, we might have under packed second label items than we should have. Looking back over 25 years, it is clear that this approach to quality assessment was quite subjective and sub-optimal."

"Now that each box is accurately graded by technology, we are producing more premium-grade items instead of the lower-quality ones. It feels like we're offering a more honest product, and it's proving to be better for our customers and our business."

Future

Wylie Thulen:
 

"The grading technology we have is truly impressive—no issues at all. I'm eagerly anticipating the integration of Artificial Intelligence (True-AI) into this system. True-AI will utilize input from growers like us in order to further enhance the system’s capabilities. Even though our grading system works virtually flawlessly, we are excited to see what new capabilities and features Ellips will introduce through the use of its AI technology in 2024 and beyond."

John Albert, General Manager at Ellips USA

Tel: +1(206)-915-4962
john.albert@ellips.com
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