Fourth generation on Hall potato farm bets on cutting-edge sorting technology
The Hall family partnership of Hoople, North Dakota, on Oct. 25, 2021, put in place a multi-million-dollar optical grading system plant that uses cameras to evaluate potatoes individually and sort them into lanes. The Halls’ Spectrim can sort up to 1,700 potatoes a minute or around 120,000 per hour.
HOOPLE, North Dakota — A fourth-generation potato farming and marketing family in North Dakota is leaping into a new era of electronic potato grading.
The Hall family partnership of Hoople in northeast North Dakota, on Oct. 25, 2021, put in place a multi-million-dollar optical grading system plant that uses cameras to evaluate potatoes individually and sort them into lanes. The Halls’ Spectrim can sort up to 1,700 potatoes a minute or around 120,000 per hour.
There are seven partners in the Hall operation, but today’s managers are Thomas John “T.J.” Hall, 42, and cousins, Jackson, 31, and Taylor, 28.
Their previous optical system — in place at the operation for about 10 years — gave the potatoes only two looks based on color grades, kicking them out if they had too much green or even some rot.
The new Spectrim model sorter from Compac Sorting Equipment puts potatoes in line on a carrier that takes potatoes in four single-file lanes through what they call a camera cabinet. The potatoes are rotated 360 degrees and eyed by nine cameras, producing 25 pictures with 80 versions, based on types of light.
“Not only does it see the color — reds, greens and blacks that you and I see — but it also has infrared cameras,” partner Jackson Hall explains. “We can see underneath the skin if there’s maybe rot under the skin that might be hard for human eyes to see, and the cameras can pick it up and kick it out.”
The cameras can see any “pressure bruising” which is from storage and settling in the pile. Instead of separate systems, the new one weighs potatoes and sizes the potatoes, with fewer drops that can bruise or nick potatoes and affect how they store and how customers choose them.
Over the past several years, this kind of technology has become common for other fruits, like cherries, apples and oranges. This is among the first in the world for potatoes.
In fact, there was no grading map for potatoes for the machine to go off when it was installed at the plant in Hoople.
“We basically had to teach the machine what’s red on a red potato, what’s yellow on a yellow potato, what’s green, what’s rot,” Jackson Hall said. “Once it starts learning, it learns quick and does a good job.”
The Halls' operation includes seven families and two generations. Together, they raise about 6,500 acres, including potatoes, canola, dry edible beans, soybeans and sugarbeets. The Halls farm largely in Walsh and Pembina counties of North Dakota, with most acres in the Hoople, Crystal and St. Thomas communities.
Today’s managers have an array of expertise. T.J. has education in the areas of information technology and computer programming. His cousin Jackson, 31, is a certified public accountant, and cousin Taylor, 28, studied crop and weed science. Four from the older generation remain as partners in transition.
They grow about 1,500 acres of red and yellow potatoes without irrigation for the fresh or “tablestock” market. Tablestock potatoes are one of the Red River Valley signature products, grown for consumers in grocery stores or through institutional purchasers.
“Fresh, red and yellow potatoes are a big thing — a quarter of what we farm, a big part of what we do,” Jackson Hall said.
The Halls are “grower-packer-shippers.” They grow the potatoes, package them, do their own sales and take no other farmers' potatoes into their plant. (Other wash plants include cooperatives, like Associated Potato Growers in Grand Forks and commercial sheds, such as NoKota Packers Inc., of Buxton, North Dakota.)
“It’s all for the fresh market, and everything is open (market) so I guess you could say there’s a little risk in that, but that’s largely how the fresh market operates,” Jackson said. “In the past, we have processed some french fry russets, but we’ve found out the fresh red and yellows is our niche.”
The company has seen many turning points over nearly 100 years.
1915 — J.G. Hall started farming in the area.
1930s — The family first grew potatoes commercially, putting spuds in and taking them to market “dry,” or unwashed.
1950 — J.G. Hall & Sons was formed, adding J.G.’s sons, Joe, Edward, William “Bill,” Bjorn and John, built a wash plant at Edinburg, North Dakota, and started in consumer packaging and direct marketing.
1957 — The family added the Hoople plant and shuttled washing and bagging equipment between the two locations.
1980s — The next generation — brothers Fred, now 69; Greg, 70; Rodger, 65; and their cousin, Warren, 70 — completed buying out the previous generation.
2005 – The Halls install their first optical grading equipment and add washing equipment in about 2010, moving much of the operation to Hoople.
2017 — The Edinburg plant suffered an electrical fire.
Wash, grade, pack
The Halls operation ships out potatoes October through April or May. Storage buildings are equipped to control humidity and temperature at 37 degrees Fahrenheit. They use water to move them in an underground flume into the wash plant.
The wash plant equipment first cleans the potatoes in a stainless steel wash washer. The potatoes then move through the optical grader.
The Halls’ highest quality potatoes are No. 1. No. 2 potatoes have a few blemishes or defects, but still are good for food service and processing. The culls are removed and sent to cattle producers for feed.
The new system weighs every potato individually. It drops them into lines that pack them into a variety of packages — from 3-pound bags to 50-pound cartons and bags, up 2,200-pound totes. Potatoes in the totes go to re-packers, who package them under other private labels.
The Halls further sort them into four major sizes — jumbos, which are A’s (common size in grocery stores), B’s (2-inch in diameter), “new” potatoes, and the smallest, “creamer” size, the size of large marble.
The ‘new’ optical
Optical grading has been around for a couple of decades. The so-called “old” system viewed them with two looks at a potato. It was often color grading.
“We used to send them through a separate sizer, to size them out, and all of the bagging equipment after that had to have scales to weigh everything,” Jackson said. “To really be doing a good job on grading, getting quality out that we wanted, and having everyone at the stations where we needed them, it probably needed 14 to 15 (workers) to get out the quality grade we wanted.”
The Halls ran a single shift from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Today, they can run the Hoople line with as few seven people — and even fewer if they are simply filling bulk containers.
Jackson and T.J. had been talking about sophisticated grading for several years and intensively for two years.
T.J. saw the equipment at trade shows in San Antonio, Texas, and Anaheim, California.
The system is made by Compac, a New Zealand company that is a stand-alone business within TOMRA Fresh Foods of Norway.
Compac's core commodities are apples, kiwifruit, cherries, citrus, stonefruit and avocados, and the company is just getting into potatoes. The Halls would have liked to see someone else in their area running a Compac system on potatoes first, but that wasn’t possible. Compac offered to show them a system being set up in Australia for process potatoes (for making french fries), but was impossible because it came at harvest time back home.
They made a final decision last December. The old system was dismantled in June and the new one installed in August through October.
Under the old system, Halls were limited to five product stations — for No. 1 (A's and B's) No. 2 (A's and B's) and creamers.
“If all of a sudden your packaging machine was on your A line, and you needed to put B’s in there, it could be difficult to move things around and get them where they’re needed,” Jackson Hall explained.
Today, they can “drop any size, any grade, at any station,” he said. Potatoes ride on carriers and can be individually dropped where they need to go. “We don’t have any constraints anymore of what size or grade we can pack into different pack sizes. We can put anything anywhere now.”
Compac custom-designed and built the machine into the existing building. In the new line, Compac built 18 different outlets, leading to 50-pound baggers, carton fillers, tote fillers. They also have three carton fillers and one Volm packaging machine, which makes 5- and 10-pound poly bags.
Today, the machine is more accurately putting potatoes in their place.
“Sometimes you have to take the leap of faith and be the early adopter,” Jackson Hall said. “We were confident in them enough from what we’d seen on other fruit and vegetables, watching testimonials.”
T.J. Hall said he hopes the equipment solidifies the company’s market position for future generations. All three of today’s younger partners have children or soon will.
“There’s lots of potential for the next generation to come into it,” he said.
The older generation is satisfied with the thinking that’s gone into the project.
“You’ve got to stay with it to stay a part of the trade,” said Greg Hall, T.J.'s father. He is philosophical about change because he’s seen so much of it and satisfied with the research that went into the decision.
“We’re extremely excited about the younger generation,” he said. “They’re doing a fantastic job.”