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Van Solkema applies technology to new veg season

BYRON CENTER, MI — Entering a new Michigan vegetable shipping season, Van Solkema Family Farm LLC is using new technology to meet retail demand and reduce labor headaches.

Todd Van Solkema, the firm’s chief executive officer, said May 7 that the firm was awaiting the arrival of new German bagging and weighing equipment for its spring Michigan deal. The machinery will bag radishes, Jalapeño peppers and beans, offering numerous options for bag sizes, such as six-, eight- and 16-ounce bags, as well as two pounds.jalapeno-bags-Todd-Van-SolkemaTodd Van Solkema shows bagged Jalapeño peppers in the firm’s Byron Center, MI, packinghouse.

Van Solkema has been working with four bagging machines that pack a combined 80 bags a minute. One new machine, which will be installed soon, packs more than 100 bags a minute, and replaces eight packinghouse workers. The machine also is more accurate on packing weights, “so we’re not giving away extra product.” Overweights from old bagging machines could amount to two or three ounces per bag.

The efficient new machine also saves money on film.

“We’re getting into different things with retail,” with more bagging options, he said.

This new technology not only efficiently serves particular retail demands, but also reduces the need for labor. “Labor has become tough. But through automation, we can save some headaches.”

In the packinghouse, Van Solkema uses domestic labor. For field work, the firm works with a contract labor firm who handles qualifications of workers.

The contracting is important because field labor needs can swing in an instant, depending on weather or fast moves on crop maturity. “If I need 30 people on ‘x’ date, I can have them” without a problem.

He noted that the Hispanic community is the only productive source of good field labor and thus is very important to agriculture, Van Solkema said.

Van Solkema is both a grower and repacker. “A couple years ago we had a big shift and began partnering with Gemco,” which supplies produce from Mexico. Van Solkema is now also sourcing with Fresh Farms LLC. Fresh Farms and Gemco Inc. are both located in Rio Rico, AZ. Except for Florida sweet corn, all of Van Solkema’s winter vegetable shipping is sourced from Mexico.

“My preference is to pack Mexican product.” Aside from shelf life, other advantages from Mexico include food safety, quality and pack out. “With Mexican growers producing in [shadehouses] they are taking the elements out. That makes a difference.”

In other corporate news, Van Solkema said the firm had recently hired Christina Monnin, who previously worked for A. Duda & Sons Inc., headquartered in Oviedo, FL. Monnin in mid-March began heading new business development for Van Solkema from her West Palm Beach, FL, office. She will work in the Byron Center office in the summer, and one week a month otherwise.

Van Solkema expected radish shipping to begin May 20-23. Early radish plantings were struck by snow and cold in early April then again in the week of April 18. Fortunately, “there was not a lot out in the fields then,” he added.

He said the firm would begin shipping Michigan asparagus about May 11. Zucchini and yellow squash shipments were expected to start by June 10. Open field beans and tunnel cucumbers are to begin harvest June 20-25. Michigan celery is to be shipped by Van Solkema in the first part of July. Michigan blueberries “will start trickling in about July 10-15” and Bell peppers are expected in the third week of July. Chilis will begin in the second or third week of July. “We’ll have hard squash at the end of July,” he said, noting that this list is the firm’s “early stuff” from Michigan.

In the Vidalia onion deal, Van Solkema began shipping April 20. The Vidalia onion deal “has been good. There are variations to the market, but quality has been decent, and volume has been decent to start. We will start filling storages mid-next week,” which would be about May 16.

“We have Georgia squash starting now and cabbage started 10 to 14 days ago,” he noted May 7. “We will start to see cukes” from Georgia “at the end of next week. We will end in Georgia when Michigan starts.”