- Associated Press - Friday, February 21, 2014

NACHES, Wash. (AP) - The job used to be done only by people with knives.

But these days on the packing line at Allan Bros. Fruit, a light spectrometer wired to near-infrared scanners checks organic Fujis for internal defects at the rate of about 2,400 apples per minute.

“If you pay $3 for an apple, it better be good,” said Miles Kohl, the executive director, justifying the millions of dollars Allan Bros. and a host of other Yakima Valley fruit packers have been spending on equipment over the past couple of years to meet the ever-rising quality demands of the global economy.

Stores around the world expect blemish-free apples. They want cherries sorted for defects, size and color with optical scanners. They don’t just want good fruit; they want computer printouts and fiber optics telling them how good.

Over a three-year span, Allan Bros. will have invested more than $7 million in packing line equipment, Kohl said.

Allan Bros. isn’t alone.

“There’s a lot of cement being poured,” said Robert Kershaw, president of Gleed-based Domex Superfresh Growers, which finished a new apple packing line roughly a year ago.

Washington Fruit in Yakima, Valicoff Fruit in Wapato and E.W. Brandt and Sons in Wapato all have similar upgrades in the works, driven by quality expectations as well as tightening food regulations and increasing labor costs.

And it helps that most packers have the money right now.

Farmers have had a run of several good years, capped by the 2012 apple harvest of a record 130 million boxes. Prices that year reached an average of $24.41 per box, also a record, as other growing regions suffered shortages.

The boom follows lean years in the late 1990s, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager for the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.

“We’ve seen some much better times,” Kelly said.

Companies such as Washington Fruit, Frosty Packing Co. and Super Cold Storage also have plans for new controlled-atmosphere storage facilities, which decrease oxygen to slow down ripening. In 2012, area packers and storage facilities struggled at times to keep up with apple deliveries.

“It’s like everything in life: the bar just keeps getting raised higher and higher,” said Tom Hanses, packing facility supervisor for Washington Fruit. “Our customers are getting pickier and demand more.”

Washington Fruit is building a $6.7 million, 96,000-square-foot cherry packing plant on River Road and Sixth Avenue, visible from U.S. Highway 12.

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