(Jan. 20) PICACHIO, Ariz. — Accuracy, cleanliness and food safety.

Those were the three concerns on the mind of Jack Dixon when he worked with Weyerhaeuser Co., Federal Way, Wash., and Maf Industries Inc., Fresno, Calif., to create a new electronic watermelon sizer.

Dixon, owner of Red Hawk Farming and Cooling, said the machine weighs and washes watermelons, sorts them by weight, then moves them via conveyor to the appropriate bins. He said there have been attempts to make similar machines, but the difference with this machine is that it can weigh the individual fruit.

“Say you want 40 18-pound watermelons in one bin,” he said. “This machine will count those and send the other sizes down another belt. This takes all the guesswork out of it.”

FOOD SAFETY

Though accuracy and cleanliness were important concerns, Dixon said, the main reason he wanted the machine was for food safety. The machine uses a chlorinated wash to neutralize any contaminants found on the fruit. Overhead brushes scrub the melons as they are rotated through the machine.

“Food safety is becoming a big issue, especially with the stuff we bring in out of Mexico,” he said. “We’ll wash the stuff we’re growing in the U.S., as well.”

Dixon said he expects other companies will turn to this kind of machine as retailers become more demanding about their melons.

“I think everybody’s going to be doing this, even the larger shippers,” he said.

RETAIL DEMAND

Part of the demand for this technology could be led by retailers, whom Dixon said stand to save a lot of money thanks to the watermelon sizer.

“A lot of the chain stores we deal with go not by the weight but by the count,” he said. “With this they don’t have to weigh each individual fruit in the stores. It’s a lot more convenient for them. If they want an 18-pound watermelon, that’s what they are going to get.”

Consumers also can benefit from the machine, Dixon said, by getting a cleaner watermelon.

“What we’re doing is trying to put up the cleanest product we can to our customers,” he said. “We want to get the cleanliness, the perfect count and the weight. And if we can accomplish that, I think we’ve done a whole lot.”

Dixon said there are still a few adjustments to be made to the machine. He plans to add some brushes that will polish the fruit once it comes out of the washing cycle. The machine should be fully operational by April.

While the machine has the capacity to pack 80 loads of watermelons each day, Dixon said, Red Hawk will likely keep the pace around 50 loads a day.

For more information visit www.maf-roda.com.