(March 18, 11:32 a.m.) GONZALES, Calif. — When the asparagus harvesting season began here in late February, nearly 1,000 people looking for work showed up outside Jackpot Harvesting Inc.’s packing shed.

Six years ago, owner Gary Caraccioli said he would have hired more than 250 of them. Now he can pack nearly 8 million pounds of asparagus a season with barely half that number of people.

While overall California asparagus acreage has dropped in recent years, Caraccioli has been able to increase his for one reason, mechanization in the packing shed.

Caraccioli, who packs for The Nunes Co. Inc., Salinas, said high-tech grading machines have not only cut his labor costs, they have made it possible for Nunes to substantially expand its sales, a majority of which goes to foreign markets.

“We have based our asparagus program the last few years on exports,” said Danny Stevens, asparagus program manager and director of international sales for Nunes. “We export our Foxy and Tubby brands to between 15 and 22 countries.”

These include Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Kingdom and Panama.

Averaging a seasonal harvest of 8,000 pounds per acre, Caraccioli said the growing export market has made it necessary to plant even more asparagus.

In the packinghouse, each Oraka Technologies machine can grade 12 spears per second or between 1,500 to 1,800 pounds of asparagus an hour, according to the manufacturer. Caraccioli said the five stainless steel machines would handle even more volume as demand increases.

Until six years ago, Caraccioli packed asparagus the same way his family had for 40 years, by hand, with the line workers’ eyes determining size and weight. He said, on average, for nearly every 30-pound box sold, each might weigh an extra pound or more; a good deal for the buyer, but not so for Nunes.

“With the efficiencies of the equipment now we can size more precisely and control the weight in the box,” Stevens said. “Where you can guarantee the minimum weight, you’re not giving away a pound-and-a-half to two pounds of product. There’s also uniformity. These machines take out the guesswork.”

Caraccioli first laid eyes on one of the machines at an asparagus ranch near Stockton. He knew immediately what such a machine could do for his business in Salinas Valley, took a leap of faith and ordered five. When they arrived in packing crates from New Zealand between seasons, he completely gutted the shed of the old lines and set up the new ones.

With the help of Rob Schwarz, managing director of Oraka Technologies, Cambridge, New Zealand, they were up and running in time for the next season. After a few hiccups, some fine tuning and lost sleep during the first season, Caraccioli said by the second season the machines made it possible to meet even the most discerning customer’s demands.

Schwarz said each machine, which cost from $90,000 to $170,000, is custom built in New Zealand for a packer’s particular needs.

“We have customers in Washington who have four cutters along the machine because they want to cut all of the white off at the same time so they make four different lengths,” he said. “We have an option to help optimize the feeding of the machine to make it go faster. Some people only want a machine with 36 or 40 chutes. Gary has 64 chutes. The length of the machine depends on the number of grades or different sizes you want.”

Jackpot packs four grades, but there are special requests.

“A large size is 11 to 20 millimeters in diameter, but we have customers who want their spears to be 12 to 13 millimeters,” Stevens said. “We can program it in and maybe set up four chutes to handle that size. Say they want 80 boxes going to a restaurant chain in Japan and they have their menu set for that size spear — we can accommodate them.”

As the asparagus arrives from the field, it is washed and cooled down. Then the spears are lined up side-by-side on a conveyor belt leading to a computer that takes an image of each, determining its diameter, length, shape and color. Every spear then falls into an individual elongated plastic cup. At a preprogrammed time, a puff of air tilts the cup over a specific stainless steel chute, dumping the spear into it.

“You can set these machines up to designate on a count basis. If you want 20 asparagus in a bunch, it will put 20 in a chute,” Caraccioli said. “If you want to do it on a per-pound basis it will do that too. We do it by the weight because that’s how we sell.”

Once the lines are set up and running, Schwarz said the company provides a month of training on each machine.

“Most of the time that’s sufficient because they’re not that hard to work once they’re set up,” he said. “But in the case with Gary, since he’s a very big operation, we stay over for the whole season, every season.”

Schwarz said the return on investment for the machines depends on volume and a number of other factors, but averages three years or less. He said spare parts are available in every country where the company sells the machines, including Australia, the Philippines and Greece, where he said they grade 2,500 pounds of white asparagus per hour.

There are 20 such machines now in the U.S., he said.