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Growers Sow the Seeds of Success

By working together on a bunch of RFID pilots, including one involving temperature sensors, a team of produce and plant growers and distributors hope to harvest a crop of benefits.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 18, 2005A group of produce and plant growers and distributors have banded together in a cooperative to share the costs and knowledge resulting from three separate RFID pilots. Through these projects, the cooperative wants to test the ability of RFID to collect a shipment's temperature history, take inventory of produce stored in a freezer, keep tabs on high-value carts used to ship bedding plants and track fresh produce through the retail supply chain. None of the seven companies involved in the pilots are currently under any customer mandate to use RFID technology, but all of the participants recognize that deploying RFID technology can benefit their organizations. Specifically, the pilots are being carried out in order to find the best uses of the technology within the grower's supply chains to increase revenue and reduce costs.

The group is comprised of Naturipe Berry Growers, a strawberry grower's cooperative in Watsonville, Calif.; Hortifrut South America, Chile's largest berry producer; Michigan Blueberry Growers Marketing, a marketing collective owned by a group of the state's blueberry producers, and Global Berry Farms, a berry marketing company, owned in equal shares by Naturipe, Hortifrut and Michigan Blueberry Growers Marketing.

The remaining members in the RFID cooperative are Hellmann Perishable Logistics, a Florida-based logistics company that manages the freight forwarding of perishable goods, such as fruit and seafood, all over the world; the Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers, a collective similar to Michigan Blueberry Growers Marketing that is operated by greenhouse owners; and Packaging Corporation of America, a manufacturer of cardboard products and Global Berry Farm's primary container supplier.

Leading the pilots is John Conner, the director of information systems for Global Berry Farms, Michigan Blueberry Growers Marketing and Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers. Conner says all the companies in the cooperative stand to benefit in different ways from RFID. "RFID is continuing to change, and we need to understand it," he says. "All of the companies [in the pilots] are devoting people, time and money to learn the technology, and as it evolves, we're all going to benefit."

The temperature-tracking pilot began in 2004 and involves Global Berry Farms and Hellmann Perishable Logistics. The purpose of the test is to evaluate several different models of RFID tags with built-in temperature sensors and compare each tag's effectiveness with that of the others and the QC Max digital temperature recorder—the non-RFID temperature sensor that Global Berry Farms and Hellmann Perishable Logistics currently use to track the temperature inside pallets of fresh blueberries during transport from Santiago, Chile, to Miami.

For the test, active and semi-active RFID tags that include temperature sensors are inserted in cases of berries as they are packed on pallets in Chile for transport to Florida. The tags are set to record the temperature once every five minutes. The temperature data is saved to each tag's chip, and the entire log of temperature readings, which can number up to 1,500 by the time the pallets reach Florida, is downloaded into a Microsoft Access database as the pallets of cases are unloaded from the transport vehicle, which can be a boat or plane. For the pilot, only 10 pallets out of the entire shipment of pallets carry the RFID tags and the tags are read using readers stationed in the unloading area. (A portal reader will replace these readers once the pilot moves into deployment stage.)

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