Enormous variation exists in the technology, efficiency and quality of potato washlines. In my travels through hundreds of farmers’ and processors’ packing lines, I’ve seen it all: washlines that are ultra-automated and modern, others that are jimmy-rigged and homemade; washlines that are effective and efficient, others that remove only a fraction of the dirt and rock. The return-on-investment of a quality washline is obvious and immediate.
As the very first components of any potato processing or packaging line, the unloading and washline equipment support or bottleneck the throughput speed of the entire line. If one expects 100,000 lbs per hour of potatoes to complete processing, the washing line must not only be able to take-in 100,000 lbs per hour, it must process those 100,000 lbs in a way that supports efficiency further down the line.
Clean, debris-free product moves through the plant cleanly and quickly. Rock and grime, however, can impact line speed and drastically decrease longevity of downstream equipment. And the cost does not end there. Many processing lines that start with inefficient or ineffective washlines end up requiring secondary people or equipment for quality control checks downstream. And, poor washing can result in unnecessary wastage: optical sizing and grading equipment, for example, cannot discern the difference between a clump of dirt and a bruise on a tuber.
Washlines use an enormous quantity of water to wash tubers, separate out stones and debris and, in some cases, move tubers through the line. Newer, efficient lines use various water recycling filtration and treatment methods, thereby drastically reducing the total cost of water and mitigating the challenge of waste water. While water may be an inexpensive and available resource now, that can change quickly: water shortages in many western U.S. states mean that in just the last three years, we’ve seen a change from very few to a very high percentage of washlines recycling water.
Many farmers operate washlines built a decade or more ago, often by themselves or a handy neighbour. These washlines may do the basic job required but are rarely efficient; are often challenged by smaller, thinner skinned varieties; and may not stand up well to the rigours of wet processing.
Modern washlines, on the other hand, offer enhanced handling care, maximum efficiency, and great flexibility. Today’s equipment can be adjusted on the go to add in or skip certain processes, optimizing the line to best suit large, thick-skinned russets or smaller, thinner skinned yellows, reds and purples, and/or toggling between conventional and organic requirements. (That said, a wholly separate line may be necessary to ensure no cross contamination between organic and conventional potatoes may be necessary).
Finally, a quality washline supports both the look and the food safety of the final product: key priorities for today’s consumers. Modern washlines remove all foreign materials, limit corrosion and enhance polishing, setting those potatoes up for marketing success.