With a passion for science and horticulture, Jennifer Parkinson is excited by the opportunities to collaborate with others as part of Eurofins’ involvement with PlantTech.
A research project coordinator working out of the company’s Katikati office, she is one of six people in the research and innovation team tasked with exploring new technologies and fruit testing methodologies that will serve a growing client base in New Zealand and around the world.
“Eurofins already has a solid reputation for fruit testing and the work we’re doing now is aimed at capturing accurate data for growers much faster than we ever have before,” says Jennifer.
“Technology has a big role to play in that so it’s exciting to be able to work with other like-minded people at PlantTech who are happy to share their skills and help us find new commercial solutions.”
The bulk of Eurofins’ laboratory work in New Zealand is focussed on collecting and testing kiwifruit and avocados for maturity clearance. However, the company also supports growers to optimise orchard gate returns by offering an integrated suite of soil, mineral, leaf and fruit quality testing and reporting services. In recent years, staff have also begun working with other crops, including hops.
Increased crop volumes, particularly in kiwifruit, puts significant demand on Eurofins for at least five months of the year, with extra staff employed to cope with the demand for testing services. More than 500 fruit collection and testing staff are needed at the peak of the kiwifruit harvest to process samples for maturity clearance at its two sites in Katikati and Te Puke.
Current dry matter testing methods for kiwifruit and avocados take nine hours to complete after fruit samples first arrive at the lab. Growers require their analysis reports within 24 hours of collection – a deadline which forces Eurofins to operate two shifts.
Competition for labour and increasing service demand means Eurofins is investigating options for new technology that will deliver faster fruit testing results for growers. More efficient processing will also reduce costs, says Jennifer.
“Laboratories are traditionally very labour-intensive spaces so we’re trying to build the ‘Lab 2.0’, and include as much automation as we possibly can.
“We’re a long way from that now but technology we’re currently trialling is helping us to bridge that gap.”
For the past year, Eurofins’ research and innovation team has partnered with a multi-national company to trial a rapid moisture sensor for dry matter testing. The one-off prototype takes just seconds to measure moisture content of fruit and is an adaption of the international company’s other sensor technologies, making the potential for commercialising it a lot easier, says Jennifer.
“We went to the company with our idea and they built it for us. It’s a fully collaborative piece of equipment. We’re testing it and collecting data that the company will use to calibrate the algorithms behind it. We also send them validation readings using our traditional dry matter testing methods.
“We’ve generated really good data for gold kiwifruit using it. Green kiwifruit is still a work in progress, and we started using it for avocados in June.”
Using the equipment, dry matter in a piece of fruit can be measured in seconds, but the aim is to reduce that time to a second, she says.
“There’s a lot of fine-tuning yet to be done but the way the collaboration is working, we’re hoping we can use the fully developed equipment in a year’s time.”
The sensor is one of just several collaborative projects underway at Eurofins. Another involves a hand-held maturity testing device for kiwifruit. Measuring dry matter and sugar content, the device has been developed for in-field monitoring, enabling staff to repeatedly test the same piece of fruit while its growing on the vine.
“Testing the same piece of fruit will help to reduce or eliminate the risk of variables generated through testing different pieces of fruit taken from library trays in the lab,” says Jennifer. “Using the device will help to make the sampling datasets even more robust.”
Eurofins has also collaborated with another PlantTech shareholder, Landx (formerly Waka Digital), in the development of an innovative sensor device that sends sound waves through a piece of fruit to measure its firmness. Traditional testing methods require fruit to be cut open but the new sensor is ‘non-destructive’, meaning fruit samples can remain intact. The objective is for Zespri to use the technology to determine the best time to ripen kiwifruit and measure how its responding to cool storage in offshore markets.
“All the projects we’re involved with have a commercial application and we’re very happy to collaborate because there’s room for improvement everywhere,” says Jennifer. “It doesn’t matter to us who finds the solution, as long as someone does.”
That sense of collaboration extends to hosting different companies at Eurofins and encouraging them to trial new technologies in their laboratories. “We’re very open to new ways of doing things and bringing in new skills to complement what we have within our own team.”
Strength in diversity
The research and innovation team is made up of staff with very different scientific backgrounds, and includes a biomedical engineer, a marine biologist, zookeeper and ice climatologist.
The diversity means team members often approach a problem from different viewpoints.
“As a biomedical engineer, Helen has lots of experience using sensors but not with fruit. But she’ll challenge us to look at things in a whole new way. Our marine biologist is introducing us to new water technologies and our zookeeper has incredible project management skills.
“It’s about using what skills we have to add value to what we do here at Eurofins to better serve our clients.”
Jennifer majored in horticulture when she completed her Bachelor of Agri-Science degree with Honours at Massey University. Her first job after graduating was at Aongatete Packhouse working as a technical and post-harvest analyst, supporting the quality team.
After two years she joined Eurofins and loves her role for its balance between research and commercialisation.
“That’s why I Iove how Eurofins is a part of PlantTech,” says Jennifer. “It’s research and technology that will be adopted commercially and actually make a difference. Our work has a real sense of purpose.”
Importantly, collaboration through PlantTech also had the potential to fast-track some of Eurofins’ priority projects.
“I love how there are people who are willing to come together, share ideas and just problem solve. Over time, it will also draw more young people into the Bay of Plenty and create more jobs.
“It’s an exciting place to live but PlantTech is also making the Bay of Plenty an exciting place to work.”