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The cutting edge

The lettuce producers at Story Fresh are customising their processing line with innovative automated machinery.

Words: Fleur Bainger

Imagine a machine so accurate that it can eject a limp piece of lettuce from an airborne sea of crisp leaves using blink-of-an-eye, multi-spectrum laser sensors and a swift puff of air. Sound fantastical? How about one that slices lettuce into uniform strips, or another that pops the product into atmosphere-controlled bags?

Factory workersIt seems like something from the future, but this technology is up and running at family-owned lettuce farming and processing operation Story Fresh.

Based in Toowoomba, Queensland, owners Geoffrey and Anne Story, along with their son, Nathan, operate a world-class on-farm processing facility, utilising innovative machinery at every point on the processing line.

Gone are the days when everything was sorted by hand around a trimming table. Story Fresh has taken automation to another level, and it's paying off.

"Customers want to see improvements in your process," says Geoffrey. "We had to keep getting more efficient. Today, we do things twice as fast."

The Story family is responsible for much of the green feed we bite into when we order a takeaway burger, salad or sandwich.

"Across three strategically placed farms, Story Fresh harvests, slices and bags 60,000 kilograms of shredded lettuce per week and sends it off to several food service customers, including Hungry Jack's and Subway."

"That's millions of serves a week, whether it's on a burger or a sub," says Geoffrey. "We ship product 2000 kilometres up and down the whole of the east coast of Australia, 52 weeks of the year."

One of their greatest achievements is being able to cut lettuce in the morning and have it to their customers that very same day, thanks to their cutting-edge, customised processing technology.

"It's a highly perishable product but we maximise shelf life by having fast processing," says Geoffrey. "Some customers will have it in their stores the next morning. That's our competitive advantage."

The Story family decided to move into processing 25 years ago, and in doing so they stepped away from the fresh food market they had long supplied.

"[Back then] we were always subject to the vagaries of supply and demand. We were always good at knowing what the cost of production would be, but in that environment you wouldn't know what you were going to get back," says Geoffrey.

The ability to turn their raw product into a packaged one opened the doors to opportunities in the food service industry and delivered greater stability to the Story Fresh business.

"Now we have a pretty predictable income," says Geoffrey. "Weather has an impact, but it's largely up to us to control our costs and yields, so we know what our income will be. For us, that was a desirable outcome."

Geoffrey's son, Nathan, has been an integral part of the family's business success. Nathan studied mechatronic engineering at university and gained a keen understanding of robotics. This training has enabled him to select the best individual machines available and assemble them to form a whole, unique processing line.

Cutting equipment
"There are 30 different pieces of equipment in the line," says Geoffrey. "We chose what we think is the best cutting equipment [and] matched it with the best shaker, the best sorter and the best washing equipment. The challenge is to make them all flow together.

"Some manufacturers could make a whole production line for you, but maybe they don't have the best sorters or dryers. It's that integration of farming and processing that makes us different."

The Storys have invested millions of dollars over time, with a single piece of machinery generally costing about $750,000. Given the relentless production cycle that Story Fresh maintains, new pieces of equipment have to be installed within three days.

Nathan oversees all of this, also training the operators and managing maintenance. Geoffrey says working with his son has been the perfect merging of diverse skills and ideas.

Now, with the Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport being constructed in Toowoomba, the business may evolve in another direction: overseas. When completed, the airport will facilitate international freight, opening up supply options for Story Fresh.

"There are big potential opportunities [for us] in Asia," says Geoffrey.

"We could process the product today, have it on a plane that leaves in the early evening-it's an eight-hour trip to Singapore or Hong Kong-and within about 24 hours the product could be in those markets."

While the concept is still a way off and dependant on the economy, the Story family definitely has its eye on international delivery.

And if there's a machine that will speed up the process, you can be sure they'll be the first to have it.