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New techniques help tomato grower pack and ship more effectively

Since its first shipment in January 2007, Backyard Farms, LLC, has sold more than 20 million lbs of its vine-ripened tomatoes to the New England market. Covering approximately 1 million sq ft, Backyard Farms' hydroponic growing facility in Madison, ME, uses both technologically advanced and environmentally friendly growing, harvesting and packaging processes that allow the company's Backyard Beauties brand of tomatoes to stay on the vine longer than conventionally grown and harvested tomatoes.



Handled with care

Fully ripened tomatoes might be flavorful, but they don't travel long distances well. This is why tomatoes are often shipped green and allowed to ripen while in transport or in an ethylene chamber. To avoid damage to ripe fruit during transport, Backyard Farms sought a way to contain pallet loads of the tomatoes in such a way that the fruit could still respirate. Also, the load containment solution would need to be environmentally friendly. Backyard Farms approached xpedx (www.xpedx.com) to help it meet these challenges. "Traditional stretch wrap with corner boards would definitely shorten the product life," says Tim Cummings of xpedx's Portland, ME, division. Instead of stretch wrap, xpedx suggested the 3M (www.3m.com/packaging) Stretchable-tape Load-containment system.

Backyard Farms chose the 3M Stretchable Tape Wrapper Model ST1000. Designed specifically for the Scotch Stretchable tapes, the tape wrapper has 4,400-lb capacity with a return-to-start turntable and programmable opera interface panel. Backyard Farms is using the Scotch Stretchable Tape 8886 in the tape wrapper. The 4-mil (0.102 mm) low-density polyethylene tape has a pressure-sensitive synthetic rubber resin. The tape is engineered to provide ventilation and stability while preserving parts integrity, minimizing waste and reducing material waste. The ST1000's taping head prestretches this to 650 percent, which 3M global product manager for Scotch Stretchable Tape Chad Henke says is the optimal stretch ratio for the tape. The tape can be further stretched to 720 percent before breaking.

Deceptively delicate looks

The tape retains its elasticity after stretching, securing the trays without crushing them.

The ST1000 can apply the tape in a variety of customized wrapping patterns: Multi-X patterns are designed to provide the best load stabilization for road freight applications; corner overwrapping patterns help secure the top layer of cases to maximize holding power; and banding patterns are designed with waste reduction in mind, as these patterns minimize the amount of tape used for in-house load-containment applications.



These tape patterns resemble spider webs in both their delicate appearance and high level of strength. Stretching the tape to 650 percent increases its tensile strength to 40 lb/in. When the tension is released, the tape's elastic memory contracts the tape slightly to tighten the load without damaging the trays.

A photoeye detects the pallet height and position for nearly automatic operation, while the machine's touchpad controls allow an operator to access one of up to 10 frequently used patterns stored in the machine's memory or to easily customize the patterns. These patterns allow a load to be securely contained without completely covering the sides of the pallet load. "We love the fact that the waste that comes out of the 3M machine is about the size of a softball," remarks Backyard Farms sales and marketing executive vp Tim Cunniff. "If you use your traditional stretch wrap, it's the size of a bed pillow." According to 3M, the material reduction afforded by the stretch tape can reach up to 95 percent. When the tape is stretched, it loses its tack, enabling the retailer to remove the tape while keeping the open-top trays retail-ready.

Process-color appealat spot-color prices

The vivid graphics of Backyard Beauties' trays mimic the look of four-color printing. ChromaPak, the graphic arts technology used to achieve this look, was first developed by Weyerhaeuser R&D scientists in 2002 in response to corrugated customer's desire to move away from simple line art decoration to powerful process graphics.

Bakyard Beauties are prominently displayed in their open-top, display-ready boxes at a Walmart in Maine.

International Paper [IP (www.internationalpaper.com)] acquired the technology last year, when it bought Weyerhaeuser's container board, packaging and recycling business for $6 billion. The printing technology uses sophisticated color separation and custom ink formulations to create vivid graphics and text without the costs of four-color process. "It uses fewer print colors and print stations to achieve the look of four-color process, but it is not four process," says IP graphics/ChromaPak eastern region account manager Laurence Miller.

The display-ready cases also provide better protection for the ripe tomatoes. "By having a display-ready package, you cut down on the handling of the fruit, which lowers potential damage and soilage," IP industrial packaging marketing director Alan Clark remarks. "You are basically handling the tomatoes once when putting them into the corrugated box, and the next time it gets touched is at retail."

The rotary die-cut trays are shipped flat to Backyard Farms, where they are folded and glued by a One Touch tray former, which can produce approximately 25 cases/min. The formed boxes have interlocking tabs that allow the tray to be used with the grower's automated system of carts that travel through the greenhouse before being packed and palletized. Each tray is filled with individually labeled tomatoes. Backyard Farms uses the ORB-it Vision Labeler to apply eco-friendly, biodegradable paper labels to its tomatoes. Both the applicator and the biodegradable paper labels are supplied by Accu-Label, Inc. (www.accu-label.com). Flexographic presses from Mark Andy, Inc. (www.markandy.com) are used to print the standard S2 size (0.762×.562-in. oval with an end tab) labels with three inks: a black and two Pantone spot colors.

On July 25, 2007, Backyard Farms’s 24-acre greenhouse, was noted in the U.S.
Congressional Record as the largest building in Maine.
.

The labeler uses the TARG-it Vision system, developed by Accu-Label's sister company Ag-Tronic Control Systems, Inc. (www.ag-tronic.com) to identify each fruit, vine and calyx for precise sticker application. Then, the machine's soft-silicone bellows-type applicator gently places the label onto the ripe fruit. According to Accu-Label co-owner Sam Sleiman, the ORB-it Vision Labeler is capable of 99.999 percent accuracy on produce without a vine. Backyard Farms is very pleased with the 85- to 90-percent label placement accuracy that the machine delivers when labeling its Backyard Beauties.

Success ignites innovation

Backyard Farms continues to look at packaging as a way to protect and promote its produce, and the grower currently is developing new packaging concepts. "We are coming out with some completely off-the-rack ideas," remarks Cunniff. "At the end of the year, we are coming out with some very innovative,exciting packaging ideas that will be completely outside the scope of the industry."





More information is available:
3M Industrial Adhesives and Tapes Div., 800/362-3550. www.3m.com/packaging.
Accu-Label, Inc., 519/727-0888. www.accu-label.com.
Ag-Tronic Control Systems, Inc., 519/322-2510. www.ag-tronic.com.
International Paper Co., 800/223-1268. www.internationalpaper.com.
Mark Andy, Inc. 800/700-6275. www.markandy.com.
xpedx, 513/965-2900. www.xpedx.com.



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