Nothing in life is promised.
We are born into the world believing in this phrase wholeheartedly. From the moment the air touches our skin, we cry out in fear, as if warmth may never wrap its arms around us again. With time and the help of well-laid plans, the belief takes a back seat in our minds. We begin to form hopeful expectations despite the many challenges that threaten to derail our success.
While many may be busy dreaming up the possibilities of tomorrow, the challenges of today remain. And, as we’ve learned over the course of the past few years, those challenges sometimes come barreling toward us without warning and without mercy.
Remaining flexible is a practice in patience. The understanding is that a wrench may be thrown into our plans at any time, and therefore we should remain proactive rather than reactive. I can think of no better example of this than those who operate along the fresh produce supply chain.
From unexpected weather events to rapid shifts in consumer demand, fresh produce suppliers are never at rest. Even with the most detailed strategies and careful planning, truly anything can happen from the time a seed is planted to the moment a product hits grocery store shelves.
G&R Farms knows this well.
The onion supplier has been staying on its toes—especially in recent years, which brought challenges from seemingly every possible angle. G&R knows that two of the main ingredients in its recipe for future success are innovation and sustainability, and it has set forth several initiatives that are poised to protect the provider from the supply chain’s variability.
“We’re always looking ahead and planning for ways to be better,” Cliff Riner, Research and Development Manager, began telling me. “As our country’s population grows, so does our need to supply more food globally and scale our business accordingly. We try to plan for these changes and be prepared to lead the industry into the next era of farming.”
At its Glennville, Georgia, packing plant, G&R recently installed new equipment that streamlines operations utilizing advanced technology and machinery. It is a state-of-the-art line that consists of a new grader, weigher, and sizer, while utilizing cameras, sensors, and smart technology to increase speed and efficiency to drive precise data.
“Our prior lines handled approximately 40,000 lbs per hour, while the new line nearly doubles that capacity at 72,000 lbs per hour,” Cliff continued. “The most important thing is that the speed will not come at the cost of quality. Every detail has been addressed in this line, making sure quality remains our top priority and allows us to process more delicately, resulting in fewer process-damaged onions.”
The new grader carefully scans the surface of each onion, looking for defects it has been taught to identify in combination with infrared cameras that can detect defects just under the skin. Cliff explained that, by using a cup and a roller system, the equipment is able to weigh product with an accuracy within half a gram, even at high speeds.
“The system takes into account the weight drift of each cup caused by dust build-up during the day, and autocorrects guaranteeing the most reliable data,” he added.
The new sizer, on the other hand, uses software to detect the top, root, and center of gravity of each onion, so it knows which diameter to measure, while algorithms determine the orientation of the product. Diameter, length, curvature, and shape can all be determined in one fell swoop.
As Cliff mentioned earlier, the need for a consistent food supply is ever-growing, and making upgrades like these to its packing facilities is one way G&R is staying ahead of the curve.
“Even eight years ago, when we began planning this expansion, we could not have foreseen the massive changes in the labor market or economy as a whole, and there is no doubt that these added efficiencies will pay dividends on that front,” Cliff relayed. “Furthermore, sustainability is always top of mind, and the new line improves quality and consistency while processing orders 80 percent faster and reducing overall waste thanks to the latest in cameras, sensors, and smart technology.”
The value of time only continues to increase with the impending threats of climate change and waning natural resources. We in fresh produce are uniquely positioned to address these challenges head-on.
"Every detail has been addressed in this line, making sure quality remains our top priority and allows us to process more delicately, resulting in fewer process-damaged onions.”
Cliff Riner, Research and Development Manager, G&R Farms
“You don’t get to be a multi-generation family farm without a sustainable point of view that puts the land first. Our land is our most important resource, and protecting it is what guarantees our future. We achieve this through soil preservation that utilizes crop rotation, water and ecosystem conservation, zero-waste goals where possible, and integrated pest management to reduce pesticide and fertilizer use,” Cliff outlined. “This is not just in Georgia, but in all locations where we grow. In Peru, for example, we earned the Rainforest Alliance Certification on our sweet onion production.”
In addition to nurturing its close relationship with the land through onion farming, G&R also manages timber resources and plants over 1 million trees per year.
“From a socially sustainable standpoint, we focus on improving the lives of our farmworkers through fair wages and health and safety programs,” Cliff added.
Packing equipment is not the only aspect of G&R’s operation that is getting an upgrade, as the provider also evolved its packaging to utilize more recyclable materials. G&R’s bag and box packaging are now 100 percent recyclable, and the plastic film and netting used on its bags are made from 20 percent recycled materials.
“Sustainability has long been a priority of ours, and we have an active program in place. Our sustainability program involves three main initiatives: protecting the land, improving farmworker livelihoods, and recycling,” Cliff emphasized. “Although we actively work on our sustainability program, our efforts go far beyond what we’ve outlined.”
For example, G&R recently replaced a fleet of propane gas forklifts with electric forklifts after running a test on-premises, Cliff said. The test was met with indisputable benefits in reducing air pollution, heat output, noise pollution, man hours to refuel, and cost to fuel/recharge.
“This has all resulted in lower fuel costs, reduced energy bills due to lower heat output, more comfortable workers, and elimination of man hours used for refueling,” he continued. “As our Research and Development Manager, I also continually test the latest in varieties and production techniques to explore ways to grow and harvest a more sustainable crop.”
G&R Farms is also looking to sustain its relationships from the consumer standpoint, and one way to do so is through flavor and quality differentiation. Cliff noted that the supplier’s sweet onion business is one area of focus that continues to grow.
“Our business is onions, and our future plans will always be about finding ways to continue to improve the quality of our sweet onion program. We manage one of the most extensive sweet onion trial programs in the industry, and you can expect that new and improved sweet onion varieties will be in our future,” Cliff concluded.
Whether you believe in fortune-tellers or not, predicting the future is certainly not an exact science. Success stories like this one are built on a foundation of trial, error, and triumph.
Regardless of where you are at in your company’s journey, it would be wise to take a page or two from this grower’s playbook. While G&R Farms is a far cry from those early days when it was taking its first breaths, it was also essential in leading the way in big ideas as it delivered some of the first Vidalia® onions to a commercial grocery store. The hope that has evolved over time eventually turned into a plan that will carry G&R far past tomorrow to more firsts.