(Feb. 26) Sunsweet Growers Inc. expects to deliver record-breaking returns to its growers for the third year in a row.

Harold Upton, vice president of strategic business processes for Yuba City, Calif.-based Sunsweet, said the improvement is due, in part, to improved supply chain management achieved through Zemeter, software developed by Supply Chain Consultants, Wilmington, Del.

“The bottom line is the best proof,” Upton said. “Five years ago we were delivering $865 a ton return to growers. This year we’re looking at $1,400 a ton. That’s unheard of.”

Upton said before implementing Zemeter in 2004, Sunsweet relied on “spread sheets and gut feel.” With Zemeter, the dried fruit and juice cooperative has weekly meetings with representatives of Sunsweet’s entire supply chain. Staff members from production, procurement, packaging, commodity groups, sales and distribution discuss factors such as inventory, lead times and markets with detailed information.

Upton said such meetings used to be rare.

“We usually didn’t have enough relevant information to do it monthly,” he said. “Maybe it was quarterly.”

Upton said the company implemented the software in five stages starting with a forecast tool the company runs every week for analyses and sales projections.

“By the time we got the first step up and running, we had saved enough money to pay for the product,” he said. “We’ve drastically reduced costs in the supply chain.”

Upton said Sunsweet was paying workers overtime 35% of the time before implementing the software. More accurate forecasts, which have been improved by up to 20%, allowed the company to cut the number to 10%.

“We’re not always cramming to get orders done,” he said. “Let’s face it, we have a product with a long shelf life. I was amazed at how much we spent on overtime.”

Upton said production is more efficient with schedules being set a week at a time instead of day to day. The result, he said, is reduced costs for warehousing, inventory, labor and distribution. With more lead time, the company has increased the amount of freight its puts on rail compared to higher priced trucks.

“We’ve held freight and distribution costs per case flat three years in a row at a time when the rest of the industry has seen substantial increases just because of fuel prices,” Upton said.

Upton said Sunsweet’s efficiency used to drop off at the end of each year because the company would run out of the right mix of sizes to put in various products. He said improved sales forecasts have helped the company improve utilization from 94% to 98%.

While dried fruit obviously has a longer shelf life than fresh product, Upton said grower-shippers of fresh products that can be stored — such as apples and potatoes — could take advantage of Zemeter as well.

“If you have production variation and some storage time, I think it’s beneficial,” he said. “I think this is the next wave of supply chain management.”