Embracing the Future
Like many farmers, Nova Agri CEO Earl Kidston was struggling with a big problem: internal decay in his onions. After a long process, he found the key that would finally solve the issue: a new electronic grader with improved, advanced technology delivered by Eqraft.
Located in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, Nova Agri is a leader in the Canadian agri-food industry. The company is owned and operated by six farm families. Over time, they’ve produced a number of fruit and vegetable crops – from potatoes and onions to blueberries and tomatoes – and successfully marketed them domestically and through export. CEO Earl Kidston is a fourth-generation farmer. He graduated from the Nova Scotia Agriculture College in 1970 and together with his brother Robert, he started Dykeview Farms Limited. In 1986, they incorporated Nova Agri Inc. as their processing and marketing arm. In 50 years, the farm has grown from a relatively small family operation to one of the national industry leaders, selling their produce to retailers all over Atlantic Canada. Working together with other landowners in the area allows Nova Agri to rotate their crops and ensure great quality and yield. ‘Customers choose us because we’ve created long-lasting relationships with them over the years and they know we’re dependable,’ says Earl. Onions for the fresh market are among the crops they’re focused on: together with another Valley producer, the Swetnam family, the Kidstons now produce and market more than 18 million pounds of onions annually.
A challenging problem
The onion production was evolving, but climate change also brought along new challenges. In 2017, like many agricultural entrepreneurs, Earl and his team were struggling with a problem: they couldn’t seem to solve the issue of internal decay. In onions, internal decay cannot be detected on the grading table or with traditional grading technology, because the onion may look fine on the outside while it’s rotten on the inside. Earl: ‘Once we realized that, we knew that not defeating this problem meant financial disaster for us. We had to give it our all to fix this. Good wasn’t good enough anymore: we needed excellence.’
Earl started an extensive quest for the company that could deliver him exactly that. He asked food scientist Nancy Tregunno to investigate potential technologies and manufacturers all over the world that had potential solutions for this big challenge. Together, they narrowed it down to three manufacturers that all used infrared technology to internally check the onions for defects. Finally, they selected Eqraft as the technology with the most potential.
Earl knew Eqraft from a previous collaboration with ERC Machinery, Eqraft’s predecessor, who at the time supplied them with an onion topper. When he asked Eqraft if they could solve his internal decay problem in 2017, the Dutch machine builder wasn’t able to give him the sorting accuracy he was looking for yet. Still, Eqraft was willing to look for a solution. Earl: ‘Our customers were asking for almost total removal of defective bulbs: even the 90% accuracy Eqraft was offering us at the time, wasn’t enough. I told Rutger Keurhorst from Eqraft: give me a call when you can reach 98%.’ Earl trusted Eqraft would find a solution. ‘They seemed very eager to solve this for us. It really felt like it was a common problem we were working on together. That made me trust them.’
After being updated regularly on the advancements in technology Eqraft had made, Earl finally received a call from Rutger in 2021. It was good news: Eqraft was at 95% sorting accuracy and felt that, with an improved AI and more advanced cameras, they could reach Nova Agri’s 98% objective. New, top-of-the-line scanners supplied by Biometic were what finally got the Eqrader to the level of excellence Nova Agri needed. ‘Over the past five years, the neural network that is at the basis of the Eqrader’s technology has been trained extensively,’ explains Nico Bredenhoff, project manager at Eqraft. ‘Thanks to improvements in the state-of-the-art scanners that internally check the onions, we can now guarantee a higher sorting accuracy.’
The new Eqrader is currently being tested extensively at Nova Agri’s premises. Besides the electronic grader, the line also includes bin tippers, evenflows, conveyor belts, and waste bunkers. On top of that, Dutch manufacturer Symach, with whom Eqraft often collaborates, has supplied and installed their technically advanced palletizing system on-site. ‘All the companies involved have some great people who are the base of excellence for the future,’ says Earl. ‘For instance, we were very impressed by the quality and discipline of the mechanics and assemblers. Thanks to their efficiency, the Eqrader was put together in no time.’
Once the new line will be up and running, Earl will finally be able to give his customers exactly what they want. ‘We’ll be able to tailor the product exactly to our customers’ wishes,’ Earl declares. The Eqrader will also enable him to supply his customers with a print-out of the grading record for every load of onions, giving them a concrete quality guarantee and building customer satisfaction. ‘We’ll have a quality guarantee that will always meet or exceed the customers’ demands.’ Nova Agri will be the first in their area with an electronic grader and the first Eqraft client that uses this advanced technology, giving them a head start on competitors. Earl: ‘Going forward, we will continue to develop a name for excellence in onion quality and customer service, replace imported onions with locally produced ones, create an enhanced recognition for Canadian onions that encourages consumers to support the local industry, and foster growth in the onion industry by working together with other producers who may not have enough onions.’
Lastly, Earl underlines the importance of every individual’s dedication to a high-quality product. ‘At Nova Agri, we value our people and it doesn’t matter if you’re on the sales team or on the grading line. I have watched as our people have tried to deliver the excellence required but without the technology, they were defeated day after day. We had to destroy several million pounds of onions because we couldn’t grade manually with the desired accuracy. It will be wonderful to witness the satisfaction on the faces of the employees in the teams that can now succeed going forward.’
He also thanks local programs and organizations who helped make this project possible: ‘Sincere thanks to the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board, the Investment Readiness Program, Nova Scotia Business Inc., the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, and the professional officers who deliver these programs, both provincially and federally, to help grow our industry and economy. Without them, this project and the industry benefits would not have been made possible.’
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Account manager, Eqraft
+31 527 256 130