Because so much is changing so quickly, nut processors face more challenges today than ever before. Some will have to modernize their working practices and technologies in order to survive. Others, by making best use of technologies, will turn the challenges into opportunities and thrive.
The biggest opportunity of all is rocketing demand. Worldwide tree nut production increased by 24% in the decade to 2018, but even this wasn’t enough to provide all the nuts retailers could sell. This is a nice problem to have, but a problem nevertheless: businesses are being prevented from realizing their full profit potential because the industry is failing to deliver what the market requires.
In attempts to catch up with market demand, some agricultural land around the world is gradually being transferred from other crops to nuts. A mammoth 4.2 million metric tons of tree nuts were grown worldwide in the 2017/2018 season, and in the foreseeable future this annual output will continually increase. This means many processors are having to run greater volumes of nuts down their lines. The big new challenge for processors is to improve productivity while still working to tight timeframes, and to increase throughput on their lines without putting food safety at risk or allowing product-quality to decline.
It’s not just a matter of peddling harder while maintaining standards: there are also pressures for product-quality to reach new heights. This is largely due to the growth of discerning middle-classes in developing nations, as well as nervousness about allergens in well-established markets. Not so long ago, it was acceptable if a ton of nuts contained 20 or fewer pieces of shell, but today many wholesalers insist on there being no more than five pieces per ton, or fewer.
This brings another challenge: how to improve product-quality without discarding so much ‘sub-standard’ product that processing becomes wastefully expensive. This requires processors to improve efficiencies by separating nuts into streams for sale as different product grades. Not all nuts have to be sold as whole foods, of course: nuts also have commercial value as ingredients for foods and as a source of oils for the cosmetics industry. But grading nuts for these various purposes, and grading them quickly to deadlines, will require many processors to step-up to more sophisticated sorting technologies.
The traditional method of sorting nuts in vast water-filled flotation tanks simply isn’t sophisticated enough anymore. Besides which, some of the businesses using flotation tanks – and many farmers who grow nuts – face another new challenge: climate change and droughts. Large-scale water use is getting pricier in some places, impossible in others. Contentious, too. And the wider adoption of water-thrifty irrigation systems is unfortunately resulting in broken parts, such as nozzles and brackets, finding their way onto processing lines.
It is not only water that’s getting scarcer. Labor is too. It has rarely been easy to recruit and retain people to work on processing lines, and now more manual workers in developing nations have more alternative jobs to choose from. This is making an age-old challenge worse.
The extent and diversity of all these challenges might seem disheartening, but solutions can be found – and most of them in state-of-the-art sorting machines.
Sorters are well-known for ensuring food safety and quality by detecting and removing imperfect produce from processing lines, but modern sensor-based sorting technologies do so much more than this. Sorting technology helps maximize productivity with high throughput rates.
It minimizes the amount of product discarded and maximizes profitability because sorters can grade nuts accurately. Sorters also use water only sparingly and reduce dependency on manual labor. These are exactly the kind of capabilities nut processors need to survive and thrive.