The Belgian cooperative BelOrta recently took a new sorting center into use. Its completion was delayed by several months, but the fully automatic optical sorting lines are now processing the first apples and pears. "The machine hasn't stood still. It's the first facility of its size in the world with such technology. With this new building, we've managed to centralize our top fruit sorting, with sites in Borgloon, Visé, and Fernelmont, in one location," begins BelOrta's Top Fruit Division Head, Laurent De Smedt.
It was a long-term project for the cooperative - four years in the making. BelOrta's fruit division has four main pillars, including sorting and packing. That branch is handled entirely by Sort & Pak Service, a subsidiary of the cooperative but which operates independently. The separate company handles all BelOrta's fruit sorting and packing. "It's a very intensive partnership, where everything's done in concert," explains Dirk Luyck of Sort & Pak. "Being under the BelOrta banner helps differentiate us. We use the cooperative's services, such as support in obtaining all our quality certificates like IFS and Organic Production every year."
Sort & Pak Service may be independent, but that is going well for them. "We've gone from a department to a true service company. From packing five million kilograms of fruit to 27.5 million and from sorting three million kgs of fruit annually to 42 million. We also work with external customers in, say, vegetables, partly to optimize machine utilization," says Dirk. However, all administration, including sorting and packing for third parties, runs through BelOrta.
That partnership is going very well, he says. "They have the retail client contacts and represent us at international trade fairs. They give us a sense of market demands regarding packaging, so we can be among the first to develop innovations. In recent years, we’ve been frontrunners in Belgium in things like top seal packaging, cardboard sleeves for apples, and the eco-punnet. We can consider what's needed, sorting-wise, too," Dirk says.
"Sort & Pak sorts at three different locations - Visé, Fernelmont, and Borgloon," adds Kris Jans, BelOrta's Fruit Division Manager. "We wanted to centralize that for several reasons. One, given our demographic curve, the current labor shortage will only continue. BelOrta saw several growers run into problems finding the right people for pruning and sorting in the winter. That used to be very easy, but nowadays, it's much harder to do both those things simultaneously. Good pruning is invaluable. It's where the season begins and where one can work on the quality of the fruit that will be harvested a few months later. Our growers asked whether we could start sorting centrally. This project is our undeniable answer."
"We also noticed that the market demands innovation. Retail clients want continuity, product security, and a guarantee of uniform quality. Plus, some 95% of our top fruit is intended for export, something that requires great flexibility. You must stick to export speeds and delivery deadlines. If certain countries are in the market, you must be able to supply them with the needed quantities as quickly as possible. So, from both sides, there was clear motivation to build a centralized sorting center," Kris says.
"Aside from that centralization, the project sprang from a desire to optimize the sorting process to achieve more exact results," Laurent continues. "But, there’s also a cost and personnel saving perspective. We wanted to achieve as much capacity in as few square meters as possible because that space costs money. We wanted to minimize forklift traffic, too. And the new technologies on the market today are extremely expensive. Not every fruit grower can afford that, especially these days. That's why we invested in this project. To be profitable, you need scale, which we, as a cooperative, can guarantee."
Kris: "Thus, we started the project in 2019, beginning with analyzing our precise needs. Which machines do we need and which ones would be up to that task? Which growers are going to commit? And so on. We then began considering different scenarios, which eventually led to some 36 different plans. We took those to different working groups. One was the technical working group, which Dirk led and reported on, while I focused more on the financial and IT stuff."
The result is a newly constructed building with two fully automated optical graders for both apples and pears. "After the integration with BFV, we'll process about 220 million kilos of pears and 100 million of apples," Laurent says. "Not everything will be sorted, packaged, and transported through this site. We work closely with growers who do their own grading and third-party graders (companies that sort their own and others' fruit) to process all the BelOrta growers' fruit volumes. That requires sorting capacity. The new apple line will grade, by size and, especially quality, ten tons of apples per hour and the pear line eight tons per hour. Along with those two lines, there are two packaging lines to pack the apples and pears in the appropriate outer packaging."
It is also a world first: the first of its size that uses high-tech Globalscan 7 cameras and Orphea software. "Both Maf Roda systems were designed for the different fruit types' specific requirements. The apples and pears are first washed, automatically transported through the line, and then quality assessed, internally and externally, by optical and infrared cameras," explains Laurent.
"The fruit is automatically divided into different classes for the fresh market and industry. You can set both standard and customized specifications for that. We, thus, also limit our residual streams. Finally, the fruit ends up in the appropriate paloxes or directly in another type of final packaging (for pears). It's transported to customers or further packaged and even prepackaged at our Borgloon location. We hope to be ready for the future thanks to this new sorting center and the investment in the sorting machines," the men conclude.
Sort & Pak Service / BelOrta
Tel.: +32 12670 222