Farming 101: Meeting The Construction Demands Of Future Fresh Produce Packhouses

There’s just no denying it: the fresh produce industry is changing. The demand from consumers and retails for pre-packed fruit, vegetables, and other fresh produce is on the rise, and it’s presenting new challenges for an industry deep in the throes of – if not a revolution – then a technological evolution.

A keen eye would suggest that success in the fresh produce industry is no longer solely dependant on quantity. In fact, it’s only half the battle. These days, the demand isn’t just for more, but also higher quality products, in a shorter time frame.

The real war for a competitive advantage within the industry is now being waged, foughts, and won – or lost, as the case may be – on the production line. Producers are increasingly reliant on often outdated packhouses that are struggling to keep up with demand, let alone remain competitive.

So, what does all of this mean for the construction companies (i.e. you) building them in the first place?

Unpacking The Issues
Recent surveys within the fresh produce industry highlight what many producers have long been saying: the consistency and quality of packed produce is the #1 concern for most packhouses. In order to alleviate these concerns, producers are turning to automated produce handling machinery and adjusting the way their packhouses function in the process.

Farmers no longer simply store, sort, or pack these days. In fact, producers are increasingly seeking fully-equipped, self-contained ecosystems that take products from the soil to store shelves.

This includes:

  • Infeed and treatment including bin tippers and washers.
  • Sorting, weighing, and grading by weight, color, and density via carefully selected scales and load cells.
  • Data and analytics such as traceability, pack printing, and remote sampling.
  • Material handling via carton handlers and palletizers.

Producers require more than ‘just a space to house equipment’. They require multi-purpose environments that are efficient and cost-effective. What that looks like, exactly, differs from farm to farm, packhouse to packhouse: every producer is different.

The flow-on effect? Construction crews require more effective, efficient designs in order to land these contracts and produce the packhouses of tomorrow, today.

Automating The Packing Process
The future of fresh produce handling, like most any other industry, is found in Automation. It’s a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’. Producers are increasingly racing to catch up, updating, retrofitting, or building new packhouses lest they risk being left in the dust of faster, more efficient producers as they put along over the horizon in their flash new farming gear and into the future.

Producers need a leading edge, and technology is providing it in with increased capacity, quality, and speed. But it isn’t just about the equipment. The design and construction of the packhouse itself plays a major role in its overall efficiency and its ability to meet new challenges and address very real concerns.

These are as many as they are varied.

Challenges & Concerns
The design, layout, and specifications of any given packhouse vary greatly depending on the producer’s individual requirements. That said, there are a number of common elements that should always remain at the forefront of discussions.

Some of these include:

Packhouses need to be equipped to effectively store fresh produce at the right temperatures, but what about the operating environment itself? The weather outside of the packhouse greatly affects the operating environment for workers inside the facility.

Modern packhouses require controlled temperatures from start to finish. This alleviates a number of issues such as humidity, which in this case can prevent fruit labels and stickers from properly adhering to the produce.

Produce Housing
Produce and products have traditionally been housed beneath canopies, but an increasing number of producers are demanding in-house storage solutions so as to remain unaffected by heat, humidity, or cold.

This isn’t all. Produce housing needs to be placed so as to be far enough removed from the dispatch point to prevent contamination and to create more efficient incoming and outgoing transport routes. This is to say nothing of the proximity to the production area itself: distance introduces further delays as produce is moved from harvest, to store, to the production line.

Preparation, Weighing, & Packing Areas
Weighing, packaging, and dispatch areas need to remain ventilated, dry, and well lit at all times. Dispatch areas in particular should be spacious enough to allow for the unrestricted movement of loading staff, their vehicles, and palletized produce.

Layout, Design, & Materials
The layout and design of the modern packhouse – as well as the materials used in its construction – are also changing. From Powerfloat concrete floors for washdown areas through to properly rated materials for food contact surface, your crew needs to account for the requirements of the packhouse in question. Not to mention the kinds of fruits, vegetables, and other produce they handle.

An effective design maximises speed, efficiency, and quality. In one example, a recently completed packhouse that spans some 25,000m² features a conveyor running directly above the fruit packing line in order to keep everything close while also out of the way.

Even something as simple as the internal and external doors present challenges and opportunities. Roller shutter, rapid rise, and slam-faced doors are generally custom built to match exact requirements, while the likes of chill doors for cold stores find a place between packing and storing areas.

Workforce Facilities, Lighting, & Comfort
Automation and modern machinery matter, but so too does the working conditions of packhouse workforces. From office toilets to changing rooms, the placement and fit-out of these areas affects efficiency, worker comfort, and – in turn – productivity.

Health & Hygiene
Ensuring a happy, healthy, hygiene-conscious environment is non-negotiable. It’s a must. The ongoing cleanliness of any environment relies on the business’ hygiene practices, but it starts far further back during the layout and design phase.

Smart designs and materials facilitate easy cleaning, upkeep, and maintenance in an effort to help packhouses meet robust hygiene requirements and food safety standards.

Wrapping it all up
From construction teams to crop growers, it’s an exciting time to be a part of the fresh produce industry. Change may be scary, but it’s also an opportunity to grow, learn, and embrace an exciting, automation-led future.

Increased demand and fresh challenges posed by consumers and retailers alike are flowing onto producers and, in turn, the construction crews responsible for building the places they operate.

With the right team, knowledge, and experience, construction crews are uniquely poised to address these demands so that producers can continue to thrive. So, is your team up for the challenge?

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