Ontario produce packer leaves nothing to chance with high-performance metal detection technology
Any way you slice it, Pier 27 Produce is a remarkably successful home-grown Canadian business story.
Situated in Keswick, Ont., the company is a third-generation, family-owned supplier of farm-fresh carrots, onions, parsnips and beets to local and regional grocery stores in the Ontario area and eastern seaboard of the U.S.
“We are actually two businesses,” explains Gary Smith Sr., who is a partner and owner with his brother Paul Sr. and their sons Paul Jr., Gary Jr., Mike, Ian and Brad.
“Smith Farms is the peer company to Pier 27—a family farm started up over 50 years ago by my grandfather Bill Smith.”
With the farming business booming, in 2008 the family decided it would be prudent to open a packaging facility that would help ensure the growth of its farming business.
The Smith Gardens farm is located in nearby Queensville, Ont. where it currently has 22 employees overseeing the growing and harvesting of 800 acres of product: 440 acres of carrot; 280 acres for onion and 40 acres of red onion; 25 acres of beets; and 15 acres dedicated to parsnips.
With combined revenues of just under $30 million a year, the 42,000-square-foot Pier 27 plant and its 70 employees currently process and package up to 28,000 pounds of carrots and 25,000 pounds of onions per hour, according to Smith.
“We generally pack only for ourselves under the Pier 27 brand, but will occasionally help out a company,” says Smith. “We are trying to be self-supported with just our own product, but we do have a few select local growers, and in our off-season we will also import product from the U.S. so that we can run our plant year-round.”
Smith says that Canadian carrots are generally finished by the end of April and onions can be safely stored through early August, adding that while the farm does not grow organic vegetables, the soil in which the product grows is entirely organic-based.
The annual work cycle typically kickstarts each spring with the farm’s regular seeding—both direct seed and transplant—to get an early start on the growing season. The crops are monitored daily until it’s time to harvest them, which is done in early- to mid-July, depending on the season.
After harvesting, the product is sent to the Pier 27 plant for packaging.
“When it arrives at Pier 27, the vegetables are washed, sized and graded to produce a fresh quality pack that is then ready to be sent to our customers,” Smith related to Canadian Packaging magazine during a recent visit to the facility.
With food safety a key pressing issue in the food industry lately, Pier 27 takes its responsibility very seriously, according to Smith.
“We ensure that all of our product is traced from the time it leaves the farm until it reaches our customer,” explains Smith. “We know which field the product came from, which variety it is, when it was packed, and the final destination of the products.”
The company utilizes the certification services of NSF Davis Fresh, a Watsonville, Ca.-based firm that provides technical expertise on food safety, validation audited on Good Manufacturing Practices, HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points)-certification and its traceability requirements.
“NSF Davis Fresh is a third-party auditing company that comes in every year to audit the farm and the plant,” relates Smith.
“They come in for a full day and carefully examine all aspects of the business, questioning us about our food safety and traceability practices that we use on a daily basis.”
After the carrots are packed in plastic bags, and the onions in mesh bags, each product is run through a top-of-the-line Phantom metal detection unit manufactured by Fortress Technology Inc.
Based in Toronto, Fortress is a globally-operating company specializing in the design and manufacture of industrial metal detector systems for the food, pharmaceutical, lumber, plastic and textile industries.
“We purchased our Phantom metal detection unit in July of 2010, and it was customized to suit our individual needs,” says Smith adding it was installed in the carrot production area to enhance the company’s HACCP implementation.
The Phantom is used to search out 2.5-mm ferrous, 3.0-mm non-ferrous metals and 3.5-mm stainless steel particles that are about the size of a ballpoint pen tip.
“I chose Fortress because they are a local manufacturer, and I like being able to deal with suppliers that are close by. It makes it easier for servicing, and parts are readily available if needed,” reveals Smith, complimenting Dave Pshebnicki from Plan Automation, a sales agent for Fortress who was directly involved in the sale and service of the Phantom for Pier 27.
Says Smith: “We’ve been using the Phantom for over a year now and to date it has not given us any aggravation.
“Also, the customer service we have received has been excellent—whether it’s a simple phone call or an on-site visit to ensure everything is working properly.”
Smith recalls being very impressed earlier this spring when Fortress technicians came to Pier 27 to do calibration, and then provided a certificate stating the metal detection system was functioning properly.
“Although we can already track our products from the field all the way to the customer,” notes Smith, “we are currently looking to update this to a full traceability software program, whereby all of the crops are seeded with GPS (global positioning system) guidance, to allow us to retrieve exact field location of our crop.”
A key supplier for Pier 27 is a Norampac Inc. plant in Toronto, which supplies Triplewall corrugated boxes with the company logo on it. Used for two-inch carrot cuts, these durable corrugated bulk carriers have a plastic liner added to protect the bin from water damage.
Other key packaging suppliers to the Pier 27 plant include:
- NNZ Ltd. to supply the mesh onion bags;
- Tempo Plastic Limited of nearby Innisfill, Ont., who supply pre-printed film bags for the carrots;
- CHEP Canaada to supply the shipping pallets.
“We also use a wide variety of specialty equipment in our facility,” explains Smith. “They are all highly specialized systems designed for the carrot and onion packaging applications, manufactured in Germany and New Zealand.”
The mesh bagger and weigher used for onions is manufactured by Affeldt, though Smith says they use Produce Bagger equipment for the larger 25- and 50-pound produce, along with some other line components manufactured by local manufacturer Alliston Machinery.
For the carrots, Pier 27 uses the impressive New Zealand-made Wyma Hydro-Cooler to quickly reduce the ambient temperature of the produce down from 850F to 34.50F—a rapid temperature change which actually helps enhance freshness and extend the shelf-life of the carrots.
The carrot production line also employs the Dutch–built Sormac cutting equipment and a cellophane bagger from Sorma USA. LLC.
“This is a competitive industry—but what business isn’t,” reflects Smith.
“We’ve been farming for over 50 years, and we’ve all been blessed with a lot of hand-me-down experience from my uncle and my dad, which gives us the ability to know what varieties of produce work best on our land to give us the best yields possible—as long as Mother Nature cooperates, of course.
“If we have a good product coming in, it makes it that much easier for us to package it,” says Smith praising the equipment utilized at Pier 27 for enabling a highly efficient production line process.
“Back in the old days, we needed more labor to watch over the machinery than we require now, which also helps us save costs,” he adds. “But really, what matters most to us is our record for providing a safe product for our customers.
“Success in the marketplace usually comes from providing a consistently excellent product that the customer knows is going to be fresh, tasty and safe, which is why we are constantly striving to maintain our well-earned record of providing just that,” Smith concludes.
“Using companies like NSF Fresh Davis for their auditing help and the Phantom metal detection system from Fortress Technology, has really brought about a peace of mind for us.”