Eagle Eye completes tech upgrade
With the addition of robotic sorters and automatic palletizers, Eagle Eye Produce of Idaho Falls, ID, has completed a two-year technology upgrade that makes liberal use of artificial intelligence and has significantly reduced its labor needs.
Coleman Oswald, director of sales, told The Produce News that in 2022, the company added automatic grading and sizing machinery. With this newest upgrade the sorting, grading, packing and palletizing of its product can all occur without manually touching the potatoes. “We are seeing that quality and consistency of the product is as good or better than it has ever been,” he said. “Especially in regard to consistency.”
Oswald said that even the best employees get tired as the day wears on and the consistency of the pack can suffer a bit. “Now we are taking our best employees and turning them into operators of the equipment,” he said. “They are inspecting the packs all day long and are making sure that the equipment is doing what it is supposed to do. So far, the quality is as good as it gets.”
The employees are happy as they are doing less labor-intensive work and are in a higher-skilled job that pays more.
Oswald said that the initial number crunching indicates that the equipment will pay for itself in cost savings and improved efficiencies within about two years. “It appears that in year three we will realize the ROI,” he said.
Oswald said that the packinghouse equipment is just one area in which the company has invested in technology. “We have invested dollars in improving the equipment at every step along the way,” Oswald said.
The 2023-24 season is currently being harvested and being sold from the field. “The crop looks very nice with good size and about average yield,” he said. “The acreage is up over last year and the yield is better than the last two years so we are going to have more of a normal size crop rather than the short crop we’ve had the last two years.”
Oswald said the result should be a pricing situation that is more consumer-friendly than it has been for a few years.
It’s no secret that the potato market has been very good for the better part of three years. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, consumers saw the great value in potatoes in both their relatively cheap price at retail and their extraordinarily long-shelf life. Shoppers were stocking up on potatoes as they didn’t know when they would get to the market again. Smaller-than-expected crops the past two years have resulted in big demand and a very good return at the farmgate.
“There is definitely more promotable volume so we expect that there will be more aggressive pricing at retail and potatoes can once again be front and center for the consumer,” said Oswald.
While consumer preferences have shifted over the years toward a smaller pack size, he expects that aggressive pricing at retail this year might see some value purchases reversing the trend. On the other hand, he does not want to see FOB prices down to the level where they were pre-COVID. “Costs at the farm have almost doubled since then,” he said. “We expect the market price to drop but we don’t want to see prices that are below cost.”
He revealed that over the last two years, the FOB price on a 50-pound carton of potatoes reached as high as the upper $20s and low $30s.
He indicated that a market dipping under $10 for that same size bag would not be healthy. Currently, the FOB price is in the mid-teens on most sizes.