With a 60% reduction in labour costs per tray, improved export quality and the creation of new streams of business revenue, the Benning Blueberries farm is hugely benefitting from its implementation of new AirJet Vision technology from Melbourne-based manufacturer GP Graders.

Benning Blueberries is a family-owned business spanning three generations, which has been farming for the past 17 years in Wodonga, New South Wales. The farm grows approximately 140 hectares of blueberries, ten acres of raspberries, and has 5,000 macadamia trees.

Over its years of operation, Benning Blueberries has faced a number of issues with its blueberry growth and supply, its labour, output consistency, sorting accuracy and speed, and all the challenges of meeting the growing demand for high-quality blueberries. Before it made contact with GP Graders, it had a grading system that had served its purpose in terms of the prevailing requirements when it was originally purchased. However, those needs and requirements had since changed and a more advanced grading technology was required.

Since 1963, GP Graders has been manufacturing machinery to meet the needs of growers and packers around the globe. The company is the leading international supplier of fresh produce grading machinery, which uses advanced camera technology to grade various types of fruit for quality and sort them accordingly. GP Graders focuses on gentle handling, so produce is delivered fresh and unharmed. Designed and manufactured at its plant in Mount Waverley, Victoria, its machinery is designed and built with an emphasis on speed, accuracy and reliability.

Benning Blueberries introduced the camera technology from GP Graders at its farm as a trial. The results have been phenomenal, with the farm improving the quality of its blueberry outputs, and exporting with the most confidence and pride they’ve had in their 25 years of business.

“As a result of this investment, we have already witnessed a 60% reduction in labour costs per tray,” says Bob Benning, Chief Executive of Benning Blueberries.

The driver of these savings has been the increase in productivity in terms of quantity and quality. Today, Benning Blueberries has increased its production from 4,000 trays per day to 15,000 trays per day with export-ready products.

“We have the same amount of people working; however we have moved them off the grading tables and into packing and quality control,” Bob explains. “We can now pack more product, our costs are going down, and we are delivering better quality produce and more volume than ever.”

In Australia, the blueberry market has evolved to a $250m business, that is exponentially growing with more and more growers getting involved in the industry, mainly due to growing overseas demand and healthy global consumption trends.

Hoping for new export opportunities, the Benning Blueberries team had the chance to travel out and meet several major fruit importers from the Asian-Pacific region. The grower faced expectations around quality standards, with buyers from overseas seeking exceptional quality in their produce.

“The representative we met with in China went through a process where he explained to us what we needed to do to succeed in exporting good quality blueberries in the market of China and Malaysia,” says Bob. “The success factors we required is to deliver a consistent size, consistent firm berry and with good colour.”

Delivering low-end or over-priced berries would severely undermine Benning Blueberries’s future ambitions regarding export markets. Changing the way the company sorted was crucial, and the production choices were looking to be a massive challenge. However, Benning Blueberries knew that the right technology investment would be hugely cost-effective, since a grading machine could not only be used for the firmness detection but would simultaneously be able to customise colour sorting.

The market-leading company GP Graders took up this challenge with its pioneering blueberry-sorting and grading system. The system is very easy to use, allowing greater control with customisable settings to adapt better to product seasonality. But above all, it offers an advanced sorting precision at a level never before possible.

With the new GP Grader machine, Benning Blueberries was able to solve the problem of not having precise grading options to choose which berries to export, sell in Australia, or freeze. The new solution allows the company to sort its blueberries into 16 different levels of quality, all sorted into separate grades. They can separate the grade of softness, so they now have a lot more flexibility of which target markets they can sell to.

“Not everyone is after big, firm fruits, as the market is quite complex,” said Bob. “With this new grading system we’ve got opportunities to target every single market rather than just targeting a particular market.”

High-grade grading

After a three-year investment in the development of new cherry and blueberry grading technology, GP Graders recently released the next generation of vision technology that will cut the cost of its vision systems through in-house development. AirJet Vision features superior vision camera capability that allows for the grading of cherries and blueberries to be achieved at the highest standards. In the next release stage it will be enhanced to surpass any other grading machinery in the market with previously unreleased camera technology, at a much more affordable price.

Improving upon GP Graders’ current suite of technologies, this new innovation give packers an ability to either convert to the AirJet Vision, or to upgrade their existing grading machinery with the more innovative, results-driven camera technology platform.

“We have invested three years and a lot of money into building a vision grading system that heavily focuses on the packer’s outcomes, their ability to market produce and reducing the actual costs of the machinery and operators,” says Stuart Payne, CEO of GP Graders. “GP Graders has been working extensively on building our own proprietary best-of-breed technology that can be purchased at a substantially lower cost than existing technologies, and as the software develops packers will be in a position to upgrade from their current systems to AirJet Vision.”

AirJet Vision is world-class technology, with superior functionality and a highe degree of ease of use, allowing greater control without a third-party interference. Additionally, the training for AirJet Vision takes approximately one to two hours and is supported at no additional cost by GP Graders.

“It has been imperative for GP Graders to work closely with packers worldwide and understand the real issues they experience with their current grading machinery technology,” adds Payne. “We understand the market and the market has been telling us to develop our own software platform with an easy to use interface and to keep ahead in the technology game, which is what we have done.

“We are now in full control of our development and have a full pipeline of development projects to release to the market over the next couple of years. This is a really exciting time for GP Graders, and we have received nothing but positive feedback from our customers.”