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Hazel Farms combats rising labor costs with RPM TL2+ tray packer

Chip Stockwell likes to be different.

As the owner of Hazel Farms in Kingsville, Ontario, Stockwell has developed a philosophy of zigging when others zag. This is seen in his choice to grow grape tomatoes instead of more common varieties.

He feels it gives his company an edge.

“Others prefer to stick with commodity products,” said Stockwell. “Grape tomatoes are a little different and specialized.” He added that this approach puts him at a competitive advantage.

TL2+ Tray Packer Picking Tomatoes

But there are drawbacks. Because they’re smaller, grape tomatoes are more difficult and labor intensive than the more common varieties. “For every big beefsteak tomato other companies have to pick, we have to pick 40 of our tomatoes,” he said.

For this reason, labor costs are a huge concern for Stockwell. “Labor is our first or second largest cost,” he said, adding that with changing wage laws, those labor costs are rising. But there is no corresponding increase in prices, so Stockwell has to find ways to maintain profitability.

“Any time we can find a better way to do something, and become more efficient, we do it,” he said.

Looking for Value
One area Stockwell looked to increase his efficiency and reduce his costs is automation. But in the early going, it didn’t seem like it was a fit for his operation.

Stockwell started by looking at some of the large providers to help automate his tray packing lines. “We contacted the big robotics companies and got some preliminary pricing,” he said.

But he said they didn’t seem to be a fit. The machines were overly complicated and required a dedicated operator, that Hazel Farms doesn’t have. And, of course, they were extremely expensive.

“It wasn’t in our ballpark,” said Stockwell.

Then, he found RPM, and got a good feeling almost right away. “We’re a small company, so we’re always looking for value,” he said.

Stockwell selected the TL2+ Robotic Top Load Case Loader. With a larger robot, the TL2+ case packer is capable of simultaneously picking up many products.

The TL2+ has a robust robot that can lift 12 clamshell pints or eight two-pound topseal bowls at a time in this application. This, along with its long reach to accommodate wide produce trays, allows the TL2+ to meet Hazel Farms’ speed requirements..

TL2+ Tray Packer Provides Simplicity, Efficiency
Initially, he was drawn to the machine’s reasonable price tag and productivity. But he quickly saw the benefits of its simplicity. Stockwell’s team was able to install the machine on their own, without support from RPM.

“It was pretty seamless,” he said. “For a machine to come in and be put in a packing line that’s already running — that was pretty impressive.”

Because of its simplicity, the TL2+ tray packer doesn’t require a dedicated, trained operator. “We don’t have the talent to run a complicated machine,” Stockwell added.

But what he likes most about the machine is its production. “Our efficiency has gone way up on our packing lines,” he said, adding that he thinks the machine will pay for itself in less than two years. That’s running a single shift about 10 months out of the year.

Due to that success, Stockwell is expanding the automation in his plants, and has ordered another TL2+. “We’re probably going to do 12-14 million packages a year, with 95-97 percent packed by robots,” he said, optimistic about the productivity and efficiency gains.

“We’re excited.”

For more information about the TL2+ tray and case packers, click here.

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