Road Trip!

Published online: Jan 04, 2021 Articles, Potato Equipment Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the January 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

I’ve been everywhere, man
Crossed the deserts bare, man
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man
Of travel I've had my share, man

I’ve been everywhere

—Hank Snow, “I’ve Been Everywhere”

In a normal year, John Rietveld amasses frequent flyer miles and platinum member hotel points like a presidential candidate collects scandalous accusations. But, as you’re surely getting tired of hearing, 2020 was not a normal year. So John and his team at Rietveld Equipment, an Illinois-based company that distributes and installs vegetable grading and washing equipment all over the country, had to think outside the box. 

As a fourth-generation grower, packer and shipper of potatoes and onions himself, Rietveld possesses a keen understanding that, pandemic or not, there is still a need to move produce from the field to consumers’ tables. Rietveld Equipment orders equipment from six European companies—Allround, Pim, Erme, Protec, Tosca and Meconaf—then assembles those lines at packing facilities across the U.S. When the first full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt, John was already preparing a way for his crews to fill the orders of their customers while assuaging concerns about everyone’s health.

“We had to get a little innovative,” he says. “Thankfully we were a little ahead of the curve. In early March, we bought a big RV for our installation crew. It’s really helped us as far as still being able to travel and work, even in places where COVID is hitting pretty hard.”

Usually, a Rietveld install crew will have in-person help from one or two representatives of the European supplier—for example, Allround. But with so many travel restrictions in place between Europe and the U.S., that wasn’t possible in 2020. Thanks to some valuable foresight, they were prepared. Rietveld installers have made weekslong trips to supplier factories in Europe to get fully trained and certified as installers and service techs on each piece of equipment they expect to sell in the U.S. On top of that, Rietveld requires a recorded factory test of every piece of equipment before it is shipped, ensuring everything is in order before it arrives at an install site.

“We don’t have to spend half a day trying to figure out where every part goes,” says John. “It’s kind of like a big Erector Set. As far as time goes, putting the machines in the line is not a big deal.”

Combine all that preparedness with modern video communication technology and a giant RV, and not even widespread COVID angst could stop Rietveld from installing washing and packaging lines all over the place. Get a load of just some of the stops along the Great Rietveld Voyage of 2020:

  • From home in northern Illinois to consult on an addition to a cleaning line for specialty potatoes in Arizona

  • From Arizona to California for maintenance calls on multiple customers’ onion lines

  • Back to Arizona to install an optical sorter 

  • On to southwestern Kansas to install a full potato washing and sorting line at a fresh-pack facility

  • Home to Illinois for a couple weeks to regroup and do some housekeeping

  • On the road again to Washington to install a Meconaf dust extraction system

This is just a sampling of the miles Rietveld installers covered in 2020. And even though it hasn’t been convenient, John says he’s grateful they’ve been able to stay busy.

“We cook our own meals, we have our own place to stay, it’s limited a lot of our contact with other people. Some of the places we’ve been have been hit hard with COVID when we’re there, so we’re happy to be in our own little world.”

A Rietveld install crew typically consists of three people, who are usually able to complete construction of a full potato washing, sorting and packaging line in four to five days, followed by another seven to 10 days of programming and electrical setup, which can usually be done by a single person. 

“Look,” John says after recalling a recent planned two-week trip that ultimately stretched to 31 days, “I wouldn’t say it’s been fun; I’d rather not go through another pandemic. But whether it’s in machinery or in production, everyone has to eat, and the agriculture markets will come back. I’ve been in agriculture my whole life, and right now I’m pretty glad to be in this industry.”