Water use targeted in Michigan food processor study

August 24, 2015

A Michigan fruit processor wants to reduce its water use by 10 percent, agreeing to work as a test site for a federally funded project to further improve on its already vigorous environmental efforts.

Peterson Farms in Shelby, Michigan, is the largest privately owned fruit processor in the state. Peterson Farms Fresh, a fresh-cut facility, focuses on the production of apples. Peterson Farms also is a marketer of frozen fruits in the United States.

Water Reduction“Annually, we market over 150 million finished pounds of frozen fruits, in addition to 7 million gallons of single-strength apple juice and juice concentrates,” said Tre Montroy, senior maintenance supervisor. “The frozen commodities we process are apples, tart cherries, sweet cherries, cultivated blueberries, cling peaches and Damson plums.”

The company works with 500 domestic fruit growers, three-quarters of which are Michigan specific. The operation has large-scale freezer and CA storage facilities.

National clients include McDonald’s (Peterson Farms was its 2012 Supplier of the Year) and Yoplait, and a number of schools.

Montroy and Erin Gerber, environmental engineer and project manager with the Grand Rapids, Michigan, office of Lakeshore Environmental (LEI), recently described their participation in the water reduction project. The pair spoke as part of MiFood 2015, the Michigan Food Processing & Agribusiness Summit.

Gerber indicated efforts would be made in the future to expand the study’s scope to other processing operations, including vegetable producers.

Funded by a federal Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG) and managed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), Gerber said the study is looking at water reduction and treatment technologies specific to Michigan food processors. It also addresses water repurposing, where applicable.

“We are conducting the study with Peterson Farms as the study site,” Gerber said. “The purpose of the study is to take a look at the opportunities where water use can be reduced within a processing facility and really reduce the ratio of gallons of water used per pound of product. Food processors tend to use large amounts of water that is required in the process, but there can be improvements made in the amount of water and the efficiency with which water is used.”

Gerber noted the significant payoffs that are possible in reducing water use.

“Not only is using less water better for the environment and a better use of our natural resources, but there is a cost-benefit to using less,” she said. “Although in rural settings water is seen as being free, it’s not necessarily free. There’s a lot of electrical costs, maintenance costs, possible effects on the environment, as well as your wastewater treatment costs and what you’re doing with it when you’re done with it in the process facility.”

Montroy joined Peterson Farms in 2014 after working in engineering and maintenance in the hospital industry, where he implemented and maintained several water conservation practices.

He said company founder Earl Peterson and wife Linda started the business in 1984. The operation’s work with Lakeshore Environmental to promote recycling efforts and other waste management practices led to the partnership in the water-use study.

“We’re really a prime candidate for this type of study,” said Montroy, who stressed Peterson’s current use of water is not out of the ordinary for like-sized operations. “We have the luxury of operating three separate processing facilities – all in one location. That includes areas from frozen apples and cherries to fresh-cut apples and even a juice plant.

“What we’re going to do is trying to target different areas where we can conserve water on the process side, our sanitation side and throughout, looking for an overall reduction of around 10 percent and trying to get our amount of water used per finished product number down as low as we can. The whole idea here is to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Water is going to become an issue in the upcoming years, and we want to stay ahead of the game.”

Gerber said Peterson Farms has had an on-site wastewater treatment system to properly manage process effluent. Its nutrient-rich byproduct is applied to corn and soybean fields. Peterson is a zero-waste facility, with no waste to the landfill since late 2012. Its apple slurry (main and fresh) is used at its juice plant. Apple pomace is used as cattle feed. The business sorts wood, plastic, glass and tires for recycling, and has an oil-burning furnace for waste oil.

“They’ve put a lot of effort into it, and have done necessary upgrades,” Gerber said.

Gerber said food processing facilities can use anywhere from 10,000 to 6 million gallons per day, leaving ample opportunities for more efficient use of resources.

“Water isn’t free, even in rural settings,” she said. “You have electricity costs, maintenance costs, environmental effects, wastewater management costs.”

And while Michigan is known for its abundant access to water resources, “it’s only a matter of time. Water is becoming a scarce commodity worldwide. Michigan is beginning to feel pressure to reduce water use. To be preemptive, you have to plan for water shortages and restrictions.

“It’s important that the food industry be proactive and helps plan for when restrictions will come down the pike.,” she said. “We have an abundance of fresh sources but we need to keep it that way for generations to come.”

The water reduction study will take into account separate water use at each of the complex’s three facilities, monitoring influent to each plant, at the main line.

Montroy said focus areas to date have included sanitation practices and procedures, such as hose size, nozzles, clean-in-place (CIP) chemicals versus continual rinsing, and employee attention and participation (see related story).

Equipment run time, including evaluation of pumps and evaporators, is being investigated. And fruit transportation within each facility, such as the use of flumes versus conveyors, is being analyzed.

“We’re looking for areas of improvement, including viable technologies to more responsibly use resources,” Gerber said. “This study will determine applicable treatment technologies for food processing facilities.”

The study results will be available in spring 2016, said Gerber, who hopes to expand the influence of the effort in 2016 and beyond.

“We want to evaluate results at up to 10 additional processes of various types and sizes, conduct additional cost analysis and determine payback,” she said.

For more information, visit www.lakeshoreenvironmental.com/SCBGProjects.

— By Gary Pullano, contributing writer