Fowler Farms investing in automation

fowlerapple Fowler Farms is well versed in apples grown on the East Coast, as the Wolcott, NY-based grower produces two dozen varieties of apples.

“We are the East Coast’s largest grower/packer/shipper,” said Austin Fowler, co-owner of Fowler Farms. “We do somewhere around close to 2 million bushels harvested in 2020, which is pretty significant.”

From Jersey Mac to Raeburn, with varieties such as Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Snapdragon, Empire, Red Delicious and Gala part of the mix, the company provides retailers and consumers an apple for every need, want and occasion.

“While it’s early to tell, our crop looks really good this year,” Fowler said. “There’s a lot of irrigation going on and overall things look really well.”

Operating since 1858, the company grows on more than 2,500 acres in Wayne County, NY, along the shore of Lake Ontario.

“In times like these, it’s kind of hard to get excited by things, but we find excitement in how we go to market and mix things up out there,” Fowler said. “Without having a crystal ball, I think it’s going to be more difficult to reach the consumer, so we’ve been spending a lot of time developing new packaging.”

That will include new visuals that will help consumers recognize the Fowler Farms brand, as well as the local farm fresh feel and comfort that its apples provides.

During the pandemic, the company hasn’t missed a beat, which Fowler credits to Fowler Farms being fully vertically integrated with a great ability to adapt company-wide.

“We have a great food safety team, food defense and a safety committee that we implement throughout our organization so there’s ever-changing regulations and we want to be on top of things and be at our best for cleanliness and oversight on our own operations,” he said. “Over the last few years, we’ve invested a lot on this.”

Naturally, it’s following the guidelines of masks and social distancing with staggered breaks and a limiting of the workforce.

“We are pretty easy to adapt because every employee who comes to work spends six hours in food safety training and learning the importance of hand washing and safety,” Fowler said.

As the company looks ahead to the end of 2020, it’s working on a lot of automation in the harvesting-end of things, with more employee ergonomics.

“We’re investing a lot of time and effort as labor becomes more challenging to bring on and maintain, we want to make people’s jobs easier and more efficient and make it more consistent to be delivered to the retailer,” Fowler said. “We have a fabrication team and a design team here on site and we build a lot of our own equipment for specialty harvesting. We focus a lot on turning the orchard more into an artisan-type assembly where people have to lift left and exert less physical effort, but yet deliver a better, more consistent product.”

For example, robotic palletizing, which it has already instituted and will continue to invest in in the future.

“Anyplace where somebody may have to do a job where someone may not want to do, we’re trying to invest time and money to better those processes,” Fowler said.

Elsewhere around the company, Zach Burnette came on as a new salesman and the company has been getting a lot of traction on the local play by retailers.

“The count-size fruit has really slowed down in movement, because there’s that stigma that it can be touched or handled more than folks might want it to be, so we’ve been told to be ready with bags going into the season,” Fowler said. “And retailers want their customers to know their products are coming from as close as possible to the source. Those things are right in our wheelhouse.”

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