Family owned fruit producer Montague is paving a path of sustainable practice using the latest technology at its new $66 million site. Doris Prodanovic reports.

As one of Australia’s largest fruit growers, Montague had three elements in mind when it built its newest facility in Narre Warren North, Victoria – the efficient throughput of apple and stone fruit packing, a reduction in operational costs, and sustainability.

The $66 million development of the 53,200 square metre site carries some of the most advanced technology and sustainability initiatives seen in the country, according to Montague.

On the outside, the building’s design and materials aim for thermal efficiency by maximising natural light to reduce electricity use. It has 100kw of solar panels, underground chutes to transfer organic waste to worm farms and animal feed, and two 500,000-litre rainwater tanks for amenities use, cooling towers and orchard irrigation.

On the inside, it includes an automated storage retrieval system (ASRS), three grading systems to inspect apples and stone fruit, a JASA Sleever – a 100 per cent recyclable packaging solution, aiming to replace plastic punnets with paper and cardboard punnets – as well as an Oporo automatic carton box filler.

Most notably, this Montague site is more than meeting the challenges when it comes to heating and cooling. A vertical cold storage room, which is 60 per cent smaller than a traditional room, can still store 3000 bins typically seen in such settings, while minimising the energy footprint of the site.

The introduction of a custom heat exchanger now uses heat from the refrigeration to heat water for wax drying tunnels.

Montague’s director of marketing, Nicole Townsend, said the producer is committed to ongoing energy efficiency and sustainability within its business operations.

“During the design phase, it was identified there was a need for hot water to be supplied within the production environment. Due to the site’s location, there is no natural gas available, which is the typical heating source for water,” she said.

“With the refrigeration design engineers Liquid Ice Refrigeration, and the production equipment suppliers Compac, we investigated using reclaimed heat from the refrigeration process for heating. But as the project developed, the heating loads were significant, so we needed an alternative solution where refrigeration and heating could be provided by one efficient combined system.”

Montague partnered with South Australian natural solutions specialists Glaciem Cooling to provide the refrigeration and heating units in a combined package, which could work alongside the ammonia refrigeration systems and the Compac production equipment.

“The design process – with all key parties – provided the most cost efficient and effective refrigeration system and hot water demand system known to exist in this type of production facility,” Townsend said.

“We are thrilled to have their support on our project.”

A detailed evaluation of the temperature requirements for packing line heating needed to be measured based on the line speed to ensure the product did not sit in the incorrect temperature for longer than required and to prevent issues surrounding quality, Townsend explained.

It meant installing an integrated system that would allow operators to program the heating systems on packing lines to turn on automatically based on shift times and demands, as well as one central plant room for all current packing lines, all while allowing potential for future site growth.

“The cool rooms were designed around the controlled temperature required for a product to ensure its quality and reduce moisture loss, while accommodating for warm fruit coming off pack lines,” Townsend said.

“Dynamic control systems were designed and built into packing equipment to provide on demand heating for product as required.

“Different programs for different product types have also been created and selected at the touch of a button by operators, ensuring the correct temperature range is achieved and adjusted to reduce risk of fruit damage.

“The new drying tunnel system has removed some of the high-risk volatile goods (such as gas and ammonia refrigeration), which has typically been within proximity of people, and is now in a centralised plant room.”

Townsend said implementation of the refrigerated Automatic Storage Retrieval System (ASRS) has also improved productivity and safety of the bin retrieval process.

She said the ASRS is 21-metre-high automated cool room, which helps to reduce the building footprint, and in-turn reduces the energy required to refrigerate.

The Montague family has been in the fruit business since 1948, and today grows almost five million apple trees across six states in Australia.

In the past 70 years, it has expanded into stone fruits, pears, exotics, as well as juices and ciders, and the new Narre Warren North facility is set to enhance these capabilities even more.

Investing in the site has increased Montague’s apple packing capacity by 75 per cent, around 220 million apples a year, and stone fruit packing capacity by 166 per cent – the equivalent of 58million pieces of fruit each season.

This article was first published in CCN’s sister publication Food and Drink Business

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