When Skagit Farmers Supply built a new agronomy plant west of Burlington in 2017, it invested in new systems, including a robot, to pack fertilizer bags.
The automated plant is designed to be run by two people, compared to five or six in the old plant, said plant foreman Ryan Hill.
Among the automated features: a label maker that sticks labels on bags, the robot that stacks fertilizer bags on pallets and a machine that wraps the pallets in plastic.
Hill said he is grateful for the robot, which has cut out strenuous manual labor.
"We are enjoying not having to stack bags anymore,” he said.
He said the robot replaces at minimum two people. Now, one person is needed to program and operate the system and a second is needed to hang bags on the line, Hill said.
"One guy can stand here by himself,” he said. “And it's a lot faster."
Hill said a 27-ton order of fertilizer now takes about three hours to complete — half the time needed to finish the same job before.
Coby Beath, who is in charge of wholesale distribution for Skagit Famers Supply, said the cost of the automated bagging system was about $550,000. He estimates it will pay for itself in about eight years.
"We got it to cut back on labor,” he said. “Labor is one of the highest costs a company has."
He said Skagit Farmers Supply's bagging system handles 6,000 to 7,000 tons of fertilizer a year.
Hill said the company ships about 90% of its fertilizer to customers in Hawaii for crops such as bananas, coffee and citrus.
He said there was a learning curve to the new automated system.
"We kind of had to learn everything on our own,” Hill said.
Still, he prefers the challenge to learning new technology to stacking 50-pound bags.
When the new plant was built, it was designed to be efficient in other ways, too.
The facility can more quickly unload fertilizer from railcars and trucks, and can mix a 3-ton fertilizer bag in about 30 seconds with the old time being 10 minutes, Hill said.
The Burlington plant can hold 7,800 or more tons of fertilizer, compared to 2,800 tons at Skagit Farmer Supply’s Conway agronomy plant.
“From the time product enters this building to the time it leaves, there are many different ways that (the new system) can it has cut time, cost, labor, and overall wear and tear on equipment in half if not more,” Hill said in an email.