Lake Ontario Fruit embraces technology in expansion

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 17 September 2014 at 12:00 am

Packing House – The Chamber’s Agricultural Business of the Year – employs 90 workers in peak season

Photos by Tom Rivers – John Russell, general manager and partner at Lake Ontario Fruit, stands inside a new controlled-atmosphere storage building that was constructed last year. The site holds 200,000 bushels of apples and slows down the ripening process say the fruit can be stored for nearly a year.

SweeTangos head down the packing line. Lake Ontario Fruit packs about 1.1 million bushels of apples each year for the fresh market. The state’s total apple crop tends to be 25 to 30 million bushels each year.

GAINES – Lake Ontario Fruit put up another new building this year, this time a 5,766-square-foot storage warehouse. The company also redid its parking lot, which serves 90 employees and tractor trailers delivering apples or taking them packed in boxes to grocery stores.

Lake Ontario Fruit has invested about $7 million in upgrading its facilities on Ridge Road since 2008. The company has added a second packing line, built a new controlled-atmosphere storage and upgraded other equipment.

When the new packing line went in in 2010, the company was able to add about 30 employees. It keeps 12 to 15 workers year-round with employment peaking at about 90.

Workers fills bags and boxes with SweeTango apples. Lake Ontario Fruit packs all the SweeTangos in New York that are grown west of Rochester.

The company is a partnership of several local fruit growers as well as John Russell, the general manager. The packing, storage and sales facility is well positioned to serve the local fruit growers for years to come, Russell said.

The company is being recognized by the Orleans County Chamber of Commerce as the “Agricultural Business of the Year.” It will be honored on Saturday during an awards dinner at Tillman’s Village Inn.

Shane Lewis, the production manager, checks data on the packing line for SweeTango apples on Tuesday. Lake Ontario Fruit has technology, an internal defect sorter, that checks apples for pressure and other quality issues.

Russell said it is a good time to be in the apple business. Customers are willing to pay a premium for apples such as Honeycrisp, and new varieties coming into the market: SweeTango, SnapDragon, RubyFrost and Zestar, with apple breeders working on others as well.

“Customers want apples with different flavor profiles,” Russell said Tuesday at the complex at 14234 Ridge Rd., located about a mile west of Route 98.

The local fruit growers are swapping out some of their trees, removing less popular varieties with the more popular ones. Lake Ontario Fruit then packs, stores and sells the apples, working with New York Apple Sales, Inc. to market the product.

John Russell is pictured inside the new CA storage. Operators lower the oxygen and raise the carbon dioxide, which acts to put the apples to sleep so they can be stored longer.

Lake Ontario Fruit used to contract with other sites to store some of the apples. But the new CA building from a year ago allows the company to keep all of the apples on one site.

The CA also uses the latest storage technology, allowing Lake Ontario Fruit to lower the oxygen and raise the carbon dioxide levels, which slows the ripening process for apples. That extends the time apples can be in storage and allows the company to put them on the market when the command a higher dollar.

This new 5,766-square-foot storage warehouse was constructed earlier this year and is used to store pallets, cardboard and packing supplies. Lake Ontario Fruit now has enough storage space for fruit and equipment to have everything on site at 14234 Ridge Rd.

Bins of apples are stacked high in this storage room, part of the original packing house in 1982. The room uses foam insulation.

The company has worked to implement the latest technology for food quality and safety. When the apples go through the packing line, they pass an infrared defect sorting system that checks apples for pressure, water core problems and any other problems. If the apple doesn’t meet the standard, it is directed off the line.

Lake Ontario Fruit also has the latest in traceability technology. Every apple gets a sticker and that label has information that can pinpoint which farm grew the apple, what day it was picked and from what lot and block.

A truck of Gala apples from Lamont Fruit Farm in Waterport stopped at Lake Ontario Fruit on Tuesday. John Russell and Teresa Cano, who works in quality control, take samples of the truck load. They also put labels on the bins that note when the apples were picked and from what orchard, block and lot.

“Any progressive produce company is doing this,” Russell said about the traceability technology. “We can trace every apple to the individual orchard it comes from.”

That technology will be critical if there is ever a food recall. It also is helpful for Lake Ontario Fruit and its growers, providing information that recognizes farmers for a good job if certain apples are highlighted for flavor, for example.

Russell said there is room for Lake Ontario Fruit to grow. Many of the growers in recent years have planted new trees that will be bearing full crops in the coming years.

‘There are a lot of young trees in the ground,” Russell said. “There is definitely an opportunity with more fresh fruit coming into the market.”

The Lake Ontario Fruit complex appears in the background while bins of Gala apples are on a truck at the site on Ridge Road.