his level of automation is virtually useless unless you are producing a beautiful product,” Harold Paivarinta, Director of Sales and Business Development, at Red Sun Farms, tells me as we talk about the new BMW robotic arms that Louis Chibante, Owner of Golden Acre Farms, has employed at one of his Leamington, Ontario, cucumber greenhouses. It is a statement that more than piques my interest, and with this trip being my first time in Leamington, Ontario, the largest greenhouse hotspot in North America, I take the bait.
So what does Harold mean when he says that this level of automation can be virtually useless to some folks? ROI.
Essentially, Red Sun Farms has built greenhouse operations, as well as partnered with growers who are producing high-quality, high-yield greenhouse-grown vegetables within mini ecosystems that thrive on e iciency, are more cost-e ective, and bring in higher returns. Smarter choices.
“You couldn’t employ these robotics at a traditional cucumber farm, because the ROI would not be significant enough for this technological investment to make sense,” Harold says. “You have to start the innovation at the seed level and continue it throughout every level of the harvesting and packing process for the investment to make an impact.”
Louis adds that for hire-wire cucumbers, the investment and innovation at the growing level has created a crop thatis more uniform in size, with incredible quality and with waste that is less than one percent across the program. Louis has been working with Red Sun for years, on both greenhouse production and innovation. As the company moves toward perfecting all its processes, Louis continues to step out of the box, and move Red Sun Farms and his own operation toward the forefront of the industry.
“While the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, the parts still matter,” Louis smiles, as we talk about the issue with having even a single piece of the production-puzzle out of place. “It is like buying a beautiful car for $100,000, but you left one tire out- it doesn’t work. If the innovation and precision isn’t there from start to finish the ‘whole’ is affected.”
We walk into the packinghouse where you may typically hear the buzz and whir of packing lines, traffic from forklifts, employees loading and unloading pallets... but here, there is only a slight hum and the kind of industrial serenity that can only come when all the parts are synchronized and moving in harmony.
"If the innovation and precision isn’t there from start to finish the ‘whole’ is affected.” - Louis Chibante
Louis acknowledges the systematic dance in his packinghouse and tells me that, “Technically, we are more efficient and can handle almost double the production of many greenhouse operations. It is in the details, it is the established patterns and the routines that makes everything run so nice and steady. I always say it is not a sprint, it is a cross-country race.”
Lola and Chloe. These are the names that Louis has given to thetwo BMW robot arms from Germany, which are typically found on a car manufacturer’s assembly line. They were named after Louis’ daughter’s dogs and currently they are celebrating two years as part of the Red Sun family.
“We have too many numbers in this place already,” Louis laughs, “So we gave them a bit more character.”
The FANUC Robot R-2000 iA 165F palletizing robot arms, Lola and Chloe, installed by KOAT, can load a semi per hour if they are programmed to do so, and work autonomously to move product on and off of the packing line. Louis tells me that he would need about 40 people to attain the productivity that these arms achieve. The versatile arms are floor-mounted and can also handle a variety of applications, while boasting a slim and compact body to minimize its use of space. The robot also o ers skillful motion performance, enhanced precision pallet picking and diagnostics functions, and integrated sensors.
“In terms of productivity and food safety, human error will essentially be higher the more people you have in a facility. With this technology, the robots’ computers know exactly where the cucumbers come from, and from which row, which employee packed them, at what time, and effectively where they need to go,” Louis says.
When I ask him how he adapted this technology to a cucumber packinghouse, Louis tells me that the functionality is no different from how it would be used to assemble a car, assemble the parts, lift a car... or, in this case, lift crates. At the end of the day it comes down to the programming and the unique operation it has been tasked to do.
“We are not building up stacks of crates at the beginning of the packing line, stopping, then transferring them to the line. Everything is fluid and there are little disruptions in movement. The line is in constant motion and Lola and Chloe allow this process to occur,” Louis says. “At any given time we could be moving 30 people around the packinghouse, and by taking some of the steps out of the human process we allow those employees to concentrate more on specialized tasks and really allow them the time to get better at them.”
He also tells me he would need three times as much space in place of the robots to account for the same process.
“You have about $20 million in automation alone coming into just Leamington right now,” Louis adds. “But, someone has to break through the wall first. People are hesitant to try new things at times, but once someone makes it work and there is ROI, you can bet that everyone else will jump on board if it makes sense for their operation.”
Besides producing little waste and recycling, and replenishing all the nutrients the plants use back into the system, Louis’ operation is one of the first to successfully grow high-wire cucumbers in North America without lights.
“Traditional cuke production grows the produce on the stem both laterally and vertically and utilizes about three to five crops per year, while with high- wire we plant only twice. This saves us on the seed investment, which would typically be three times what we pay now,” Harold says. “The money we save goes back into the system for continued investments and innovation.”
“While the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, the parts still matter” -Louis Chibante
Louis’ operation has gone from 180 cucumbers per-square-meter to 230 cucumbers per-square-meter, while also using only a fraction of the seed cost of traditional greenhouse growing. “I could go on and on,” Louis tells me as he steps back to admire the details he has worked so diligently to put into place.
So, I ask Louis and Harold, what is next? An expansion of the Red Sun Farms program into Ohio.
The company has broken ground on Phase 1 of its second U.S.-based greenhouse operation. Strategically located a few hundred yards from I-75, a major interstate, the new operation will provide access to fresh greenhouse produce for nearly 60 percent of U.S. population within a ten-hour transport radius. Phase 1 will boast 20 acres with state-of-the-art production area and a 26,000-square-foot distribution center. Within the next seven to ten years, the company plans to reach 200 acres and to create more than 400 jobs for the area.
“In addition to cutting-edge technology, Phase 1 will employ the use of high-pressure sodium lighting to provide our retail partners and consumers with fresh, local, greenhouse produce, even during the cold winter months in Ohio,” Louis says.
Exciting times for Red Sun Farms. Louis leads us the rest of the way through the packinghouse, addressing every spinning arm, packaging e ect, and proprietary detail.
The line slows as the day winds down. Each participant in the day’s events quietly coming to a halt. Lola and Chloe move the last of their pallets and, as we walk toward the exit, they bend their bodies, and take a bow.