Do you know what it takes……

In my ideal world, there would be no mass producers of food, no companies denuding our planet of trees to make farm lands to grow massive amounts of food.  There would be no exporting and importing of food products. No farmers changing ecosystems to be able to have acres upon acres of lands available for products that are not indigenous to that land. But that’s in my ideal world, where small communities would grow their own food, people would make things from scratch and share with their neighbours whats they produce.

However, in the real world, where all these things happen, I work for one of the companies who pack fruit for export.  Doesn’t that seem rather hypocritical? 

When I decided that I wanted to opt out of my fast paced life in the city – where my carbon footprint was HUGE, and slow down and live a life where I would feel more real and I could live closer to my ideals, I found a little job at a farm packhouse where I would do some paperwork and earn a little bit of money just to get by.  I chose willingly to be poorer financially so that I could feel alive.  Moving from a high-powered, jet-setting position to a humble little job took some adjusting to – especially for my ego.  I was used to having piles of assistants around me to do the more mundane tasks and now I was one of those assistants.  I had to swallow my pride.

I settled in at my new job and really got to enjoy the business and the people I worked with.  After 5 months though, I was called into the directors office and given a promotion, and from the beginning of this month I have been heading up quality control for the packhouse. And I just love it.  The one drawback is that while we are packing citrus, my hours will be longer which takes me away from my beautiful farm and lessens the time that I can spend with the Bean.  I need to see how we will adjust to this.

So today I am going to take you step by step through the packhouse.  You’ll be amazed to see what it takes to get citrus fruit off the farm and onto your tables. (Long post warning…… there will be lots of pictures though)

We use a huge amount of boxes.  We should pack about one million boxes this season (off 6 farms).  We pack into about 20 different boxes – different sizes, shapes and labels, depending on the market its going to and which exporter send the fruit.

Here are some of the boxes waiting to get folded.

The boxes are folded and glued by machines.

Fruit is picked on the farms and sent to the packhouse in bulk bins.  Each bin is labelled with the farm name and which orchard it was picked from.

 We pack one farms fruit at a time – these  can be packed into quite a few different types of boxes though and would fill a few different orders.  Importers specify what size fruit they want so at times we may be packing into four or five different boxes simultaneously.

The bins are weighed and recorded. Scales need to be checked and calibrated daily.

 They are then placed into the bin tipper and the fruit is tipped into the dumping bath where any residue sand, leaves and dirt is washed off. The pH and quality of the water is checked by a laboratory weekly.

The fruit then move along the line towards the pre-sorters

 We only pack class 1 and class 2 fruit.  Any fruit that falls outside of this is removed at the pre-sorting tables and sent on to the juice bin.

Here you can see the failed fruit traveling out of the packhouse to the fruit bin.

And here is the fruit bin where the fruit for juice is collected and then trucked off to the fruit processors.  They come to collect the fruit with trucks.

The good fruit then pass through another warm water bath where they are washed again. The pH, temperature and water quality needs to be kept constant.

then dried before being waxed and polished.  This is where they are sprayed with a pure food grade wax while being brushed from below with huge polishing brushes.


They are then dried in a heating tunnel and move towards the sorting tables where three teams sort them into class 1 and class 2

The class 2 fruit then go through a final check to remove any fruit that should have gone to the juice bin and are then packed. This is the class 2 check and packing area

The class 1 fruit then moves on to the sizer.  The sizer is the most expensive part of the packhouse equipment.  It weighs and photographs each fruit.  The weight of the fruit will then be programmed automatically into the cup that is holding it so that it is tipped out onto the correct packing belt.  The photograph is analysed automatically to check the colour of the fruit.  Markets are very specific about which colour fruit they accept.  This then is also relayed to the computer which will direct the fruit to the correct packing belt.

Right up  the sizer you can see the control center. From here everything electronic can be controlled and turned on and off.  This is what it looks like inside

Just after the fruit goes through the sizer we find a strange piece of equipment that adds a tiny little sticker onto the fruit that require it.  Some supermarkets need this label on the fruit for their pricing.  The fiddly part of this is that each place and supermarket chain has a different label.  The sizer knows which fruit need which label and will then direct this piece of equipment to stick it on

Can you see how fast the fruit moves?  Those little orange blurs are grapefruit passing under the Sinclair labeller.

 This is what one of the tiny stickers looks like – you get many, many different kinds

Each grapefruit is then dropped off by the sizer at the correct packing lane for its size and label.  The packing table ladies get their packing instructions from the huge magnetic board up in the rafters of the packhouse.  It tells them which box to use, and which labels should be on the box.  The big number at the top is the grower.

Each packing lane packs a different number of fruit into their boxes depending on the size of the fruit that pops out onto their belt.  This is called the count.  There is also a specific pattern that the fruit need to be packed in depending on the box type and fruit size.  For example, if you are packing a count 35 you would use a different pattern than if you pack count 40’s. Also, if you pack into an open top box your pattern differs the fruit packed in a closed top box.  Here is an example of a packing pattern (4/5 pattern)

We have 34 packing lanes for class 1 fruit.  A sample of a packing lane below.

You can see how the boxes from the box machines get to the packers on the box chain above their heads.  In the photo above you can see four different kinds of boxes being packed at the same time.  These ladies also add a little bar code sticker to the side of the box which tells us who packed it.  This way we can measure productivity.

The boxes are then placed onto belts that move them out of the packhouse to the palletizing area.

Just opposite the lady above is the scanner that records the barcodes. She also checks labels at this point.

The boxes then get placed onto the correct pallets by palletizers.  One each pallet you can not mix growers for certain markets, other markets don’t mind.  You may also not mix counts.

Labels must be checked very carefully and then each pallet is also labelled with a bar code.  This bar code is for the harbour so each label has to be registered on Paltrack online so that it ties up with the export documents and customs computers in Durban. 

The pallets are then lined up to be loaded onto trucks that drive the 12 hour trip to Durban.  There are quite a few docks at the harbour and we may not pack pallets for different docks onto one truck.

Below you can see Lindiwe and Daniel.  They look after our 200 packing staff and ensure that they are doing the correct thing at the correct time.  To be able to do this they need to know exactly how many of each pallet needs to be packed for each count size and each market.  These instructions change throughout the day.  It amazes me how they keep track of everything.

My job is to ensure that everything runs smoothly, that no bugs grow anywhere, that the water quality is good, that the fruit quality is good, and that there are no labelling errors.  I also have to control all the stock of consumables, boxes, chemicals and fuel and also make sure we don’t run out of anything.  I also maintain the files that record all of the checks and balances throughout the packhouse which are inspected each year for us to continue packing.  I keep on record every chemical data sheet and batch number, all QC checks done daily right up to the spraying programs on the farms.  I am on the run for about 9-10 hours a day.  Luckily the citrus season is reasonably short and the mango season is not hectic at all so I will get some good down time in summer.

Did you think that so much went into putting fruit in supermarkets?  I didn’t


9 thoughts on “Do you know what it takes……

  1. Very similar to what they do here. Thank you for the tour; and congrats on your promotion.

    As to your utopian world…as beautiful as it sounds, I’m afraid I would do poorly. The only talent I have is for writing 😉


  2. I have a new found respect for each item of fresh produce that I consume, and all that I waste. As usual thanks for making the grey matter tick!


  3. My mother and her twin sister was packers in 1922 at Zebediela. At that time it was the biggest orage estate in the world! And when I went to school it was stil the biggest!
    But the differece was that there was not even one machine to class the fruit – the girls had to do it, and the fruit was wraped in thin paper for exporting, all done by hand!


  4. This was a most interesting post! I’m so fascinated over mass production and I didn’t know there was so much into distribute some fruits.
    I’ll give you 5 stars. Thank you for the story.


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