Focus, employee teamwork help reduce energy use at NORPAC Foods' Brooks, Ore., plant and start a continuous process revolution.

NORPAC Foods' plant in Brooks, Ore., looks to reduce energy and labor wherever possible. Among the plant's latest technical improvements are automatic corn huskers.
Photo courtesy of NORPAC Foods Inc.

On the surface, it seems like an odd proposition - asking employees to look for something that’s inherently invisible. However, because energy can be measured - and otherwise quantified - there’s no reason not to keep good track of it. And there’s seemingly no time to lose.

That’s the approach at NORPAC Foods Inc. (NFI), a Stayton, Ore.-based processor-supplier of frozen vegetables, fruit, pasta, vegetable blends, soups and fruit preparations. A 240-member grower cooperative, NORPAC supplies U.S. and overseas markets from its five plants: three direct operations in Stayton, Salem and Brooks, Ore., and two subsidiary plants in Hermiston, Ore., and Quincy, Wash.

“Rising energy costs are becoming an increasing challenge and a larger factor in our production costs,” says Mark Croeni, vice president of operations. “The Northwest no longer has the advantage of low-cost energy. What we’ve needed was a way to give plants the tools to focus on continuous energy improvement.”

NORPAC took its initial steps in early 2006, when - through the Northwest Food Processors Association - officials contacted the Industrial Efficiency Alliance (IEA), a regional energy strategies consultant. Croeni says IEA helped NORPAC benchmark its energy programs and profiles against other industries and food processors.

Realizing an opportunity for improvement, NORPAC selected its Brooks operation for a pilot project. As a processor of peas, broccoli, beans, corn and cauliflower, Brooks had the highest electrical rates within NFI.

Officials say Brooks selected an “energy champion” - an internal manager charged with introducing and implementing the program and assembling a multi-functional team. Besides their efforts to raise overall plant awareness, team members met monthly to identify areas for improvement and establish key performance indicators and reporting methods. Portland General Electric, Brooks’ energy supplier, also participated and supplied power use data and information.

Pardon the play on words but it wasn’t long then, before the light came on and ideas started flowing.

“Behavior change has to do with attitude and commitment,” says Plant Manager Ed Beal. “We just needed to police each other and communicate when things are going to change, so others can react appropriately.

“We ended up changing some standard operating procedures,” he continues. “One had to do with simply shutting down freeze tunnels and blanchers when they are not needed. In the past, they had been allowed to idle for hours on end, just in case they may be needed.”

Still more improvements were to (1) centralize the lighting control panel in Brooks’ cold storage warehouse so lights could be turned off at one location, rather than in three separate areas, (2) install energy-efficient T5 light fixtures in the plant’s corn processing area (3) install a variable frequency drive on an irrigation pump to allow it to modulate based on pressure and demand and (4) reduce compressed air use during the winter (non-peak) season.

Based on the amount of energy used per pound of product, Brooks’ efforts resulted in a 6.9 percent energy reduction from the year before.

“This was done with minimal capital spending,” Croeni notes. “These numbers are obviously affected by changes to pack plan, canned-vs.-frozen quantities, harvest conditions, etc., but it still represented a significant improvement. Last year, we expanded this program to three more plants and - now in 2008 - we will extend it to all remaining operations.”

He concludes, “NORPAC’s energy champions were recently recognized by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance for their work in making NFI more efficient and globally competitive. What these champions and committee members have learned is a process for continuous improvement, which we will be using in other areas of our operations.”

Just the facts

Company:NORPAC Foods Inc.
Food plants honored:Brooks, Ore.
Selection criteria:Environmental initiatives
Employees:110 full-time
Facility size:200,000 square feet
Products:Frozen peas, broccoli, beans, corn and cauliflower

Refrigerated & Frozen Foodstalks with Ed Beal, manager for NORPAC's Brooks, Ore., plant.

Refrigerated & Frozen Foods:Looking back on 2007, what are you most proud of?

Ed Beal:It's very difficult to pinpoint one thing. It was a very challenging year in many respects. Due to changing markets for corn and some of the other crops in the [Williamette] valley, plant production was down considerably over prior years. In spite of this, we were able to reduce our energy consumption as measured in Btu per pound of product. Historically, as production declines, that number shoots up dramatically. This was accomplished almost entirely just by heightening the awareness of our people that energy is a huge expense. They jumped on the bandwagon and policed each other - reminding people, "If you don't need it, turn it off."

R&FF:What were the greatest challenges of the last year?

Beal:People are always a challenge.  Being a seasonal operation, we jump from about 100 full-time, regular employees to between 800 and 900 during peak operations in July and August. Finding, hiring and training those people - is a huge undertaking. I am fortunate to have many long-term employees at this facility, who know the ins and outs of the process, and who care deeply about getting it done and done right.

R&FF:Talk about a few of your operations' strengths in relation to the "Food Plants of the Year" criteria. How did you develop these strengths?

Beal:I think the No. 1 strength is our workforce.  I've been fortunate to be able to bring most of the key supervisors here up through the ranks, so they know the system as well as its strengths and weaknesses. The energy conservation program is a classic example.

Previously, we had always looked at energy as something that is just "there." It was a case where you'd think, "Don't worry about how much you use. Just get the job done." As soon as management made a commitment, supervisors and regular employees stepped up and pointed out things they had noticed were wasteful, or pointed out more efficient ways of doing things, but didn't think anyone cared.

R&FF:What industry issues most trouble you in plant operations? What steps are you taking to address these concerns?

Beal:Getting the product that we need - in the amount that we need to make the operation efficient - is a large concern right now. With rising demand and interest for biofuels - and some other commodities - there is a great deal of competition for farmland. As a result, raw product pricing is going up significantly. That puts added pressure on the plants to reduce their costs.

In addition to some technological improvements - such as replacing corn huskers with newer, more efficient models - we once again challenged the employees to come up with ways to reduce labor. They did, and they continue to respond positively.