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Knouse Foods/Lucky Leaf Adventure 2012: Part 2 of 4
The day we visited one of the Lucky Leaf orchards, we found the grower had three of his children working along side himself (all willingly since you know how kids can be, haha). It was absolutely the coolest thing to watch as the machinery went through the orchard gathering cherries since there is such a short period of to do so. Usually cherry season is approximately two weeks long at least but because of the frost and other weather conditions this year, it has been shortened to one week to gather all the cherries in their prime stages of growth. This is mostly due to the weather here in Michigan since 70% of cherries in the U.S. come from Michigan.
Because it can take up to five years to get a tree with fruit, trees are planted in rows and trimmed specifically to allow maximum sunlight and to keep fruit growth evenly distributed through the tree. All of the fruit is grown for either fresh or processing purposes. Although there is a shortage of cherries because of weather conditions, this year has also been different in that we had such an early Spring and blooms started approximately four weeks early.
150 kinds of apples such as fuji, golden delicious, granny smith, or york are used for both for pie filling, apple sauce and juice. Balaton montmorency cherries are the most commonly used tart cherries. All apples are hand picked and the same goes for sweet cherry trees to avoid bruising or other damage but as you can see for efficiency purposes, most tart cherries are done mechanically. This is possible (as you can see in my pictures) by placing two pieces of a conveyor belt/tractor on each side of the tree and shaking it vigorously for maybe 3 seconds. By doing so all the cherries are dropped onto the belt where a blower blows the leaves off to the ground placing them back to earth where they naturally belong.
From here cherries go straight into ice bins to keep them from breaking down and getting soft. They must be processed within three weeks to ensure their freshness. Actually today's cherries you will find through the assembly line are at the latest yesterdays picked cherries which is very fast production from tree to can. Each cherry then goes through a series of operations to perfect them for your plate. From the lawnmower blade which completely removes the stem onto the cherry pitter which pierces each cherry precisely in the center to remove the pesky pit. There are non stop tests along the way and after to check efficiency of all machinery used and to ensure the happiness of each customer.
Cherries are then cooked directly in the can you see and buy to be sure all the freshness is locked inside. Each heated to a specific internal temperature and flash cooled as well to keep all food in the safe temperature zones. Lucky Leaf has four plants throughout Pennsylvania and one located here in Michigan which are all equipped with some of the most advanced and technological equipment available (some even more efficient than say those "other bigger" competitors).
One of the really exciting technologies used at Lucky Leaf is the way they store and process their apples for year round production. Since we know most fruit cannot be grown through all seasons and we want the fruit that is produced here in the United States. Once the apples are sorted for either processing or fresh use (usually the biggest are used for the grocery stores), they are prepped to be put to sleep. About 1/3 of all the apple crops are placed in one of the 18 CA (controlled atmosphere) where it is pumped full of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. These apples are then sealed in the room at a moderatored temperature of 31-36 degrees and in a sleeping condition for up to a year. This sleeping state keeps them from rotting, ripening OR growing any further.
Because Lucky Leaf is again such a self sufficient operation, they actually create their own take nitrogen and carbon dioxide instead of purchasing it thus saving transportation emissions. They use regular air from outside the plant and first strip the nitrogen then the carbon dioxide. The air is then re-released outside in a way that it is clean oxygen without polluting the air in any way. These plants also use three different size compressors which each use different amounts of energy. The largest compressor is only used when in prime harvest season which is only about 400 hours a year saving large amounts of energy. All of the engineers who work in this facility are trained effectively to keep everything safe and operating during a power outages.
Frequently tested thoroughly for any defects in the packaging materials or processes, there are pre-approval checks throughout the assembly line on the specifics such as the pits, the various internal temperatures, the water waste throughout, stems, and of course pesticide amounts. Then checked after for mashing at any point during the process and weights after cooking as compared to before. The cans are also thoroughly inspected to check for flaws throughout or on the seams, as well as making sure there are no air pockets/air bubbles inside the can after it is sealed.