The cost of peanut grading is high and going up.
In the highly competitive food market, it thus behooves the industry to make the process more efficient.
"The cost of grading peanuts is very high compared to other commodities," says Bryan Willis, president of Damascus Peanut Co. in Georgia. "As we're trying to compete against other crops, every cost disadvantage throughout the system is important."
Reworking a 70-year-old system is a long process. It was one of USDA Research Engineer Hank Sheppard's first projects when he started working for the Agricultural Research Service 23 years ago. A quarter-century later, he may see that vision realized.
"We really expect to have something out in two years," Sheppard said. "It's going to have to go through all the channels for approval of this process, of course."
The peanut grading process is regulated and managed by the USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service and subcontracted out to various Federal State Inspection Services, or FSIS, in peanut-producing states.
The current labor-intensive grading system was developed in the 1940s and hasn't changed substantially since then, although a protocol for testing high moisture peanuts was approved in 2005.
The industry wants it changed.
"While current technology does a good job, it's very slow, labor intensive, has a large margin for error if not done exactly right and is expensive," Willis says. "We hope that this machine takes out human error, requires less labor, most of which is seasonal and of inconsistent quality, is faster and less expensive to operate."
Sheppard notes that when the current grading system was developed the peanut harvest season ran three to four months.
"Now the bulk of the season is as short as 4 weeks," Sheppard says. "The current grading equipment can not keep up with this rush of samples and in years where there is a drought this slows the process down further due to the increased amount of hand-shelling needed to complete the sample."
Larger buying points could see a significant drop in labor needs, not just for graders but also for administrative staff and other casual labor, Sheppard said. For instance, one buying point hopes to drop from 13 graders to 3. A smaller buying point, however, might not see a significant labor savings.
The cost of the machine also could be an issue for smaller operations. Sheppard now is testing a $70,000 prototype machine at various peanut buying points in Alabama, Georgia, Texas, New Mexico and North Carolina. An earlier production-model version of an x-ray machine from Belgium Electronic Sorting Technologies was first tested in 2007.
"This testing showed that the X-Ray machine could accurately determine the amount of hulls; foreign material, or FM; loose shelled kernels, or LSK; sound mature kernels, or SMK; and sound splits," Sheppard said. "The x-ray machine was also much faster in determining these grades than the current method."
BEST used the information gathered in 2007 to develop a new prototype, which was tested in the lab in 2008. Further fine-tuning led to this fall's trip to test the equipment in the field.
"What they do now takes 10-15 minutes and can take 30 minutes," he said.
One area still to be worked on is damage detection. Sheppard is looking at a laser system offered by BEST which could be attached to the end of the x-ray machine.
To accommodate smaller buying points, Willis believes federal legislation that permits using the machine to grade peanuts likely also will allow buying points to choose to continue hand grading.
"That's what we did with high moisture," Willis says. "Buying points can choose which way they want to go."