Whilst potato growers have faced some of their most challenging times over the past 12 months, with potato prices under constant pressure, the packing sector has experienced a firmer hold on prices, and according to latest figures released by Farmers Weekly, in recent weeks, growers have seen an increase in potato prices overall, with the GB average up by 9%.
Those crops holding their value have been the best quality, and in order for growers and packers to maintain good prices, the UK’s potato division of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, AHDB Potatoes, along with equipment manufacturers, are emphasising the importance of crop quality and minimising damage, to ensure yields are profitable.
Here, Charles Tong, Chairman of Tong Engineering, discusses the importance of gentle handling to achieve the best quality and price, as well as how the latest equipment developments that are designed to maximise the profitability of crop yields, can help to ensure crop quality and reduce unnecessary processing costs.
“The beginning of 2015 saw some continuation of the struggling potato prices and, in many cases, below average yields that were characteristic of 2014. An evident supply-demand imbalance within the UK potato market has not helped the situation, with a fall in potato sales across a majority of the UK retailers, this has obviously contributed to the overall pressure on prices.” commented Charles.
“Nonetheless, the future of potatoes is set to brighten. With potato prices starting to show an overall increase, and the prospect of a three-year £2.6 million promotional campaign in the UK led by AHDB Potatoes, to help boost consumption, the potential for increased prices and demand offers a light at the end of the tunnel for growers and packers.”
“Despite things looking up, the best prices are always achieved from the best quality crop; there is no demand for poor quality or damaged potatoes” explained Charles. Whilst in general, this year’s yields are proving good quality when lifted, it is important that crop is handled gently post-harvest to get the most desirable returns. By embracing the latest technologies and equipment developments, growers and packers can ensure that their processes are the most efficient and gentle possible.”
With over 85 years of engineering experience, Tong Engineering designs and manufactures potato handling equipment that is built to perform in the most demanding situations, whilst offering gentle handling of crop. Built to the latest equipment design, Tong ensures smooth transfer points and minimal drop on all its potato handling machinery. “Modern handling equipment is designed to handle crop very gently, and it is important that growers and packers embrace these advancements for a better quality crop.” said Charles. “When it comes to profitability, it is not just the gentle handling of crop that is paramount, but the latest equipment also offers significant time and labour savings.”
To help increase the profitability and the efficiency of potato handling operations, Tong Engineering has launched the new Auto-Touch HMI Pro-Series controls as options on all its latest equipment, to bring a level of control and system intelligence to the vegetable handling industry that would more commonly be seen in the aviation and rail industries.
As such, the new controls include a series of modules including a diagnostics module, an enhanced safety module and a maintenance schedule module, that offer advanced system monitoring and reporting, saving time and ultimately processing costs.
“We have recently worked on a number of large-scale grading projects throughout the UK and overseas” says Charles Tong.
“As these grading projects developed in the design department, our technical engineers identified opportunities for a more intelligent control system that incorporates a number of new and advanced features that make operating the equipment much easier and efficient, ultimately making the whole grading process much more productive.”
“Our Auto-Touch HMI controls have been an increasingly popular option on our grading lines and Caretaker mobile grader, featuring fine adjustments to machine settings at the touch of a button. With the addition of the new intelligent Pro-Series features, the latest controls are built on next generation hardware and programming, offering very obvious efficiencies” added Charles.
The Pro-Series control modules are available as individual add-on programmes or as a complete package. At entry-level, the new controls include an emergency-stop finder which visually identifies on the touch-screen, the precise location of any emergency-stop which is activated. An intelligent energy efficient power-saving mode also identifies and shuts-off any equipment that is not in use.
The intelligent Diagnostics module provides users with continuous status monitoring, so that in the event of an issue, the exact location is automatically pin-pointed enabling quick and easy problem solving and resetting. Any such issues are shown visually on the touch-screen, allowing users of any level to see exactly where the problem has occurred, for a quick resolution. This feature significantly reduces downtime, removing the guess-work on machine trips and fault-finding.
An Enhanced Safety module means that when any essential maintenance is required, the designated area can be isolated, in a ‘safety-stopped’ condition, so that maintenance can be carried out safely, whilst other parts of the machine can continue to run in a normal operational status. Again, keeping any downtime to an absolute minimum. In addition to this, a Maintenance Schedule module allows the run-time of any machine component to be recorded in terms of running hours or calendar periods, indicating when any part may need to be maintained or changed, making any scheduled maintenance much more efficient.
The new Pro-Series controls also feature an advanced user module, allowing operators of all levels to access and control equipment based on their level of training. This means users at standard levels are able to see visually, the machine’s status or diagnostics and in many cases rectify and reset any alerts without the need for an engineer.
In addition to the new controls, the latest Tong potato grading lines can be manufactured to incorporate illuminated box filling beacons when several box fillers are in use, making it much quicker and easier for forklift drivers to see which boxes need to be changed next. Any grading screen changes can also be carried out quickly and safely with Tong’s EasyChange function, allowing screens to be changed mechanically, at the touch of a button, with an electrical winding mechanism.
“Although our equipment is built upon years of experience in designing quality handling solutions that allow customers to increase throughput, achieve greater flexibility and accuracy, and minimise damage, the technical advancements in our control systems really are offering our customers even greater opportunities for saving time and increasing efficiency” explains Charles. “This, coupled with the latest engineering design which minimises impact on crop as it passes from one part of the processing line to the next, means not only is the whole handling process much more productive but crop is handled exceptionally gently, giving a high valuable end product.”
One customer that has taken advantage of the new Auto-Touch Pro-Series controls is the Produce World Group. Katie Stark, Operations Director at Produce World Sutton Bridge says “The touch screen controls on our new grading facility mean that the line is exceptionally efficient and safe. I’m confident with a long line of grading screens, crop is handled as gently and efficiently as possible.”