Sep 5, 2013
Traceback system, sorting line aid fruit operation

Bear Mountain Orchards has a thorough traceback system that its vice president, Sheila Gantz, called “fail proof.”

Gantz described the system for guests from the International Fruit Tree Association, who recently visited several fruit operations in Adams County, Pennsylvania’s primary fruit-growing region, as part of the association’s summer tour.

Once Bear Mountain’s fruit is picked, identifying tags are affixed to every bin and pallet. Among other things, the tags identify the farm, the orchard block and the variety. In the packinghouse, every bin and pallet is assigned a run number, which is stamped onto the boxes the fruit ultimately ends up in. If there’s a problem with the fruit at the store, Bear Mountain can use the run number to trace it all the way back to the block it was picked from, Gantz said.

“We know exactly where that box of fruit came from,” she said.

The development of the traceback system, which the company has been using for about a decade, was driven by customer needs and by an increasing emphasis on food safety in the industry. In addition, Bear Mountain’s packinghouse and farms were recently certified by PrimusLabs, a food safety auditor.

“It’s a huge step up for us,” Gantz said. “We’re proud we did it. It took a lot of work.”

In June 2012, Bear Mountain installed a new sorting line for fresh fruit. It’s a single-lane line with color and defect sorters purchased from Compac, a global manufacturer that originated in New Zealand. Gantz said the line was comparatively small, but it was all the company had space for in its packinghouse.

“We’re very land-limited at this location,” she said.
It took time to get used to the Compac line last summer and fall, but they ended up packing more fruit with less bruising and got greater accuracy on weight. Bagging apples went much faster, and the line worked “beautifully” in sorting out hail-damaged peaches. Gantz said they’re thinking about adding a scanner that can pick out internal defects, but she isn’t completely sold yet on how well it will work.

Bear Mountain grows about 450,000 bushels of apples per year. The fresh apples go through the Compac line (along with apples from other nearby growers) – about 2,400 packed bushels a day during harvest. Processing apples are sold to Knouse Foods, she said.

Up to 30 people work in the packinghouse for about nine months a year, Gantz said.

Growing, adapting

Robert and Mary Lott purchased the original Bear Mountain farm in 1937. Their son, John, now the president, and daughter, Sheila, took over the family business in the 1980s, and continued to expand, buying more land and building a new packing facility in 1997, according to the farm’s website.

Robert Lott was a strong supporter of Extension and soil conservation services, and the family still holds those values, said Abby Lott, John’s daughter, who represents the third generation of Lotts on the family farm.

Today, the family operation grows fruit on 10 farms within a 10-mile range. Those farms grow tart and sweet cherries, fresh and processing peaches, nectarines, pears, Asian pears, plums and apricots, Abby said.

But of the roughly 1,000 acres of fruit Bear Mountain grows in total, 600 are in apples. They started moving to higher-density plantings nearly two decades ago, said Farm Manager Joy Cline.

Bear Mountain grows 30 varieties of nectarines and peaches. Gantz said they’re phasing out their late-ripening peaches, however. There are issues with maturity and taste, and it’s too hard to pack late peaches and early apples at the same time.

During harvest, there are about 75 people picking fruit in the orchards. Bear Mountain has its own labor housing, so unlike other growers it hasn’t had a problem getting adequate numbers of workers, Gantz said.

Most of the orchards in Adams County, nestled on the slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, range in elevation from 700 to 1,200 feet. The diverse geography of the region – rolling hills, south-facing slopes, north-facing slopes, rock outcroppings, good and poor soils – forces growers to plant a diversity of crops. Cherries can grow in some areas but not in others; same with apples and peaches. John said you have to figure out which fruit works best on which site.

Diversifying your crops means you’re not going to hit a home run, but it does minimize risk and does allow for incremental profits from year to year, he said.

The diversity of plantings also helps Bear Mountain sell to a diverse customer base, said Maggie Travis, director of sales. The company sells direct to retail and chain stores, brokers and institutional buyers like schools and prisons. It’s small enough to pack to order or to supplement another grower who might need more of a certain crop, but it’s also large enough to fill tractor-trailers.

About a dozen years ago, Bear Mountain entered into an informal agreement with other packers in the area to market their fruit together, in order to increase the total volume available to chain stores (thereby increasing sales). Joining together was a necessary step when faced with the challenges of the global market and the costs of doing business, John said.

In 2011, Bear Mountain partnered with Bream Orchards to build a 300,000-bushel storage facility with both regular and controlled atmosphere storage space, according to the farm’s website.

Matt Milkovich

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