For Jim Schaefer and the Storage Control Systems (SCS) team, business is about much more than the bottom line. Business is about family.
“Fruit growers are people persons,” said Schaefer, president of SCS. “They want to make sure that you’re for real and that you’re going to be able to service them when they have problems.
“With fruit growers, it’s about family,” he continued. “They run family farms, so we end up knowing the owner, the owner’s son and the owner’s son’s son. That’s really what Storage Control is about, too. My grandpa was a fruit farmer, my dad started this business and I’ve taken it over. And my son is out there working right now,” Schaefer said, pointing to the warehouse of his Sparta, Michigan, office.
“We understand reliability and service because we come from the same background as the people we are selling to,” he said. “We aren’t going to sell you something that we don’t believe in.”
Storage Control Systems was established in 1982. The company has always called Michigan home, but business spreads far beyond the Midwest.
SCS has been involved with growers on the East Coast since the beginning, but Schaefer said the relationship strengthened in 1987 after the introduction of nitrogen generators. Fruit farmers in the Northwest have worked with Schaefer and the SCS team for the past 10 years.
“We are one of the biggest full-service, controlled atmosphere sales and service organizations in the United States,” Schaefer said. “We develop, build and innovate.”
What’s the goal?
“The goal is the same for everyone: firm fruit with good flavor,” Schaefer said. “And how do we get our customers that? I think everyone – people in the west and in the east – are realizing that new varieties are bringing the most dollars back, but in return they have to be taken care of a little friendlier than older varieties.”
For that reason, Schaefer said, growers are willing to put a little more money into CA storage.
“If you do everything right, you’ll have extra fruit to sell and you’ll save money on your electric bill.”
Efficiency will always be key, but creating the perfect atmosphere is a little more difficult. That’s where SafePod comes in. In 2010, SCS teamed up with David Bishop, technical director at International Controlled Atmosphere, to develop the idea.
Schaefer said the two were sitting side by side on a flight to Washington state when the idea was discussed. They thought: “If we put a cabinet in a room, we should test a select number of fruit and it will be representative enough and we won’t have to deal with outside factors upsetting the apple cart and ruining our experiment.”
That was the start of SafePod, and Schaefer has the airplane sketch to prove it.
SafePod is patented in the United States and Canada. Bishop brought the technology to the United Kingdom and began grant work in early 2014, which has proven to be successful.
Earlier this year, the team was awarded a three-year grant from the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, titled “SafePod: New technology for intelligent control of fresh produce storage.” The project will begin in the summer of 2015.
“We were able to demonstrate to the reviewers for this project grant the substantial benefit this technology could bring to the UK fruit storage,” Bishop said. “They recognized that there was much more information needed about the response of the primary UK cultivars to very low oxygen using dynamic technology. They also recognized that this research was beyond the capacity of individual companies and required government assistance for the benefit of the complete fruit industry.”
The grant will fund SafePod research, with the objective of understanding the “response of selected apple cultivars to very low oxygen and their respiration response, so that commercial growers can use this information to successfully use SafePod technology to optimize each room of stored fruit,” he said.
In three years, Schaefer and Bishop will have a clear understanding of the technology’s capacity and will be able to relay the message to commercial fruit growers. Both hope SafePod will allow the industry to be much more precise.
“At Storage Control Systems, we want to be instrumental in making sure that new varieties and the excitement of the apple industry ends up on the grocer’s shelf with a firm and flavorful bite,” Schaefer said. “That’s the goal. We want people eating apples.
“When the grower puts the harvested fruit in one of our rooms, we want him to be able to sleep at night because he knows that the technology we sold him will allow the apples to sleep comfortably,” he continued. “The SafePod gives us a way to find that sleep number. We believe it’s the next frontier of the apple industry.”
– Courtney Culey