(Oct. 4) Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. is still looking for new innovations.

And that’s 21 years after it became the first U.S. packinghouse to separate medium and large USDA No. 1 sweet potatoes and 16 years after it became the first to electronically size its sweet potatoes.

The Chadbourn, N.C.-based grower-shipper plans to have a new packing line with a Durand-Wayland platform sizer installed in its new facility by mid-December, said president George Wooten.

Wooten said his old line had been upgraded several times since it was installed in 1990, but it wasn’t designed with sweet potatoes in mind.

“We’ve been working with white potato equipment, but we’re not in the white potato business,” he said. “It handles sweet potatoes fairly rough, and we want something that will handle it easier.”

PLATFORMS INSTEAD OF ROLLERS

Durand-Wayland Inc., LaGrange, Ga., has been making electronic sizers since 1980, working primarily with tree fruit.

Vice president of sales Ray Perry said most sizers move and rotate round fruit like apples and oranges on rollers and belts, but that model doesn’t work well with sweet potatoes and other odd-shaped products such as eggplant or squash.

The company introduced the platform sizer last year, and Bailey Produce will be the first U.S. company to have one installed.

Rather than rollers, produce moves on 6-inch by 3½-inch reinforced plastic platforms. An item such as a sweet potato or cucumber might rest on two or three of the platforms, which have a slight V shape to cradle the items.

Perry said the line moves at 200 feet a minute. Each item is weighed 16 times. An average weight is figured, and overweight and underweight items are kicked out.

Wooten said the company’s line will increase from eight lanes to 10, and the company will be able to sort product into 14 grades or sizes, up from 12.

Each lane has a digital camera box, allowing the system to sort by color, diameter, shape and damage as well as weight.

LESS SHRINK

Wooten said he expected shrink to drop 5% to 10% because of improved handling. After being weighed and sized, the platforms tilt 45 degrees to lower sweet potatoes onto a belt that sends the product to the appropriate carton.

Wooten said the new line will double the company’s packing capacity to 1,400 40-pound cartons per hour. Bailey Produce ships 70 million cartons a year.

Bailey Produce harvests sweet potatoes from late August to early November and packs from storage year-round.

The company’s offices, packing house and storage facilities have been in different locations, but operations will move under one roof — a 225,000-suare-foot remodeled furniture factory — in Chadbourn when the new line is installed in December.

Perry said the platform sizer also can be used for bell peppers, cantaloupe, bananas and papayas.