This articles was published September 2005 in the Hendersonville Times-News
By Jennie Jones Giles
The apple industry is strong in Henderson County and it is not going away. Allan Henderson, chief executive officer of C.L. Henderson Produce, believes in that statement so strongly that he invested almost a half million dollars in a new state-of-the-art apple production line at the company’s packing house.
Henderson’s was the first apple-packing house in the United States to put in the new system, which eliminates the bagging machines. A small prototype was placed in Georgia.
“We invested in our heritage, which is the apple industry,” Henderson said.
The new packing line eliminates the individual bagging machines, common to apple production lines.
The new color sorter and computer can look at 600 apples a minute and determine what the apples do as they move down the conveyor belt.
Three lanes of 600 apples per lane move through the color sorter a minute.
“It actually looks at each apple individually as it turns, using digital technology,” Henderson said. “It takes four photos of each apple and compares the photos with the database to determine colors.”
The computer also determines the diameter of each apple and its weight. All these factors determine whether the apple is packed in trays by size or into bags.
After leaving the color sorter, the apples move onto rollers with long, black horse-hair brushes. Other apple systems use thick matting.
Most apple graders and production systems dump apples into a bin, where they roll downhill and fall into a bagging machine operated by an employee. With the new system, the apples move gently and horizontally into bags, exactly 3 pounds per bag. Air holds the bags open and acts as a buffer.
“The apples are cushioned by the air,” Henderson said.
Most, if not all, apple bruising is eliminated.
An operator only has to pick the bag up, turn off a green light and tye the bag with tape. Even the tray packing is automated. The apples feed directly into the empty trays. An employee only needs to re-arrange slightly, Henderson said.
“My labor was cut in half,” he said. “I used to employ about 50 people, now it’s 25 to 30.”
A robotic bin filler fills bins with processing apples. Using rotation, the apples move gently into the bins. They only fall about 31/2 inches.
“All you have to do is set the bins on the floor,” he said. “A blue light even tells you when to change bins.”
The fruit is uniform in size.
“Now each box is 42 pounds on target,” he said. “We found we had been giving away 2 to 2 1/2 pounds a box.”
Any round fruit, including peaches, tomatoes and bell peppers, can be graded using the new system, he said.
Henderson invested $400,000 in the Durrand-Wayland Ultra-sort system and another $60,000 in the new control panel.
He turned the old machine into a pre-sizer, where apples can be graded, washed and sized, then placed into cold storage.
If a company wants 300 bushels that day, Henderson can supply them.
“Before, we would have to grade the apples and size them before we could fill the order,” he said. “This cuts my response time in half. It helps marketing and sales.”
Henderson’s is the only packing house in North Carolina that is now pre-sizing apples and storing them. His is also the only packing house that washes apples in hot water of 140 degrees. He began the process after consulting with experts from N.C. State University and conducting experiments.
The hot water melts the natural coat of wax on the apples, where residue, such as crop protectants, adhere.
“This leaves the apple in its cleanest state,” Henderson said.
The apples are then dried and a natural wax is put on the apple, which keeps the apple from dehydrating and seals out pathogens.
C.L. Henderson Produce’s packing house is certified by U.S. Department of Agriculture Good Agricultural Practices.
“We have all nine certifications,” Henderson said. “We’re the only one in the United States with all nine. We even beat Dole and Del Monte.”
Locally, Henderson’s apples can be found at Ingles and Bi-Lo grocery stores. The company packs apples grown in Henderson’s orchards and the apples of five other county growers. He also packs apples for a few growers in South Carolina.
With the cost of transportation and freight, Henderson said local stores and chains should buy more local produce. At least one-third of the store’s cost is freight, he said.