When you are the second biggest grower of bananas and avocados in the country, and the harvest for both comes crashing in on you at much the same time, you need a good packing shed. A big one. That was the critical challenge facing Howe Farming Enterprises at a time when it had seriously outgrown its existing facilities.
Like many farming enterprises in Far North Queensland, Howe Farming Enterprises started small, experimenting with tobacco and vegetables in the early 1950s.
As time went on, the family diversified into avocados (1979), peanuts (1990s), bananas (1996), coffee (2000) and more recently, blueberries.
Now a second generation operation, what started as a farm based on a soldier's settlement loan is today an enterprise that operates across 15 properties located about an hour out of Cairns and employs 500 staff, with an emphasis on locals and indigenous employees, supplying fruit to the major retailers through local business, MacKays Marketing.
In simple terms, the bananas and avocados are harvested, brought to the packing shed, sorted, packed and held in cool store awaiting delivery. The continuing expansion has had its downside - the equipment, storage and packing has not been able to keep pace with a business that has gone from strength to strength.
Much of the packing equipment for avocados was in its prime 18 years ago, the main packing area was not insulated making it hot and dusty for staff, and cool room capacity simply couldn't take the volume. The result was multi-handling over various sites and increased spoilage, adding to the rejected fruit that doesn't meet supermarket specification.
"The avocado equipment we had was at the point where it was no longer feasible, we had literally outgrown it," said Alexander Larsen, Howe Farming Enterprises operations manager. "We needed a shed that had the capacity to accommodate new equipment, increased cool room space and ripening facilities as well as allow for us to venture into production of banana powder, for the natural sweetener market to use the rejected fruit. There simply isn't a shed that big in the region."
The shed build took around six weeks and has trebled capacity for bananas and avocado processing.
By chance, Entegra Signature Structures was in the region attending a Far North Queensland Field Day. One conversation led to another and resulted in Design Consultant Greg McCalman visiting Howe Farming Enterprises and then working with the business to create the ideal shed solution.
"With a new shed, Howes had the perfect opportunity to design the building to be fit for purpose," said Greg. "We looked at ways to ensure the workflow was optimised based on how the fruit arrived at the shed and how it is delivered. We worked out the best way to position the new avocado grading machinery, which was 65m long to fit in with the way Howe's receive and despatch the fruit. Areas for the cool storage, office space and room for the freeze-drying equipment for the banana powder were also factored in."
The end result was a clear span shed with a ridge vent, 120 metres long and 56 metres wide, with one central post per truss. The lack of internal posts means the avocado grading equipment would be accommodated easily," said Greg. "It's now one of the biggest sheds in the region and complies with all the necessary cyclone ratings. The team at Howe's went one step further and included a curved roof, for aesthetic appeal."
Preparation for the site was undertaken by the staff at Howes, who were keen to put their skills with bulldozers and scrapers to a new task instead of preparing land for crops. In all, the shed build took around six weeks.
Perfect fit: Constructing a new shed from scratch gave Howe Farming Enterprises the opportunity to design the building to be exactly fit for purpose.
The final result is a shed that has trebled capacity for avocados and doubled for bananas, and is fully contained on one site, 100 metres from the farm - the heart of the operation. Cool storage is currently running at about 50 per cent capacity, allowing the business to future-proof for further growth.
"The equipment for the avocados operates about three times faster than the old line we had, so already we are seeing increased efficiencies there and it is a lot safer to operate," said Alexander.
"Organising the workflow has also meant that we can segregate our pedestrian access from the forklift areas, and with the whole shed cooled, it means we have a stable temperature making it more comfortable for staff. The additional cool rooms mean we can hold stock for longer before it ripens, resulting in less spoilage. An improvement like that, even if it is only 2 per cent can make a big difference for us."