5 Questions: The critical post-harvest factor in U.S. agriculture
- May 1, 2023: Vol. 10, Number 5

5 Questions: The critical post-harvest factor in U.S. agriculture

by Mike Consol with Jim White

Post Harvest Technologies Inc. in Salinas, Calif. — which acquires and operates income producing ag-tech companies — has roots dating back to 1936 when the original founders of Growers Ice Co. established services supporting the fresh produce industry in the Salinas Valley. Today, Jim White, CEO of Post Harvest Technologies, is sounding the alarm that the U.S. needs to invest more heavily in the post-harvest side of the supply chain and is offering clear opportunities for investors.

Many investor dollars are committed to farmland, while relatively few dollars to the post-harvest supply chain. What have been the consequences of this?

The lack of investment dollars allocated to the post-harvest supply chain has negatively affected the agriculture industry. Specifically, this lack of investment has resulted in crumbling infrastructure, increased food waste and spoilage, decreased productivity, higher costs and slower transport times for produce to move through the chain. That has led to decreased shelf life. While it is crucial that growers and shippers of fresh produce receive adequate resources to sustain long-term growth, without the requisite infrastructure in place to support them, the post-harvest supply chain will break down.

The viability of the fresh produce industry relies on having robust cold-chain infrastructure in place to ensure the reduction and prevention of post-harvest losses of fresh fruit and vegetables. Other critical components of that infrastructure include pre-cooling and cold storage facilities, specialized pre-cooling equipment, alternative energy systems, automation technology and robotics, racking systems, data gathering and warehouse management systems, unloading and loading processes, and logistics service providers to handle the cooling, storage and distribution of post-harvest commodities.

You have referenced the “golden hour” during the crop harvesting phase. What is the golden hour and its import?

The golden hour refers to the critical window of time immediately after a commodity is harvested in which it must be transported to a facility to be pre-cooled and then stored in a temperature-controlled warehouse. “Pre-cooling” refers to the removal of field heat from a commodity post-harvest to maintain the nutritional value of the crop and extend the shelf life. There are several methods of pre-cooling that differ based on the specific commodity in question, for example: vacuum cooling, ice cooling, forced air cooling, and water/hydro-cooling.

If a freshly harvested commodity is not pre-cooled quickly, the product will respirate (i.e., begin ripening rapidly) and deteriorate in quality and nutrition. A general rule says that for every hour of delay in getting a freshly harvested commodity through the pre-cooling process, you lose one day of shelf life.

What are the processes used in post-harvesting?

The process by which post-harvest commodities travel from field to table can be summarized by the following sequence of events:

  • Grower/shippers harvest a commodity (let’s say romaine lettuce) and pack the harvested commodity into cases in the field, which are grouped into pallets and loaded onto field trucks.
  • The field trucks are then transported to an industrial pre-cooling, cold storage and shipping facility, where the product is unloaded from the field trucks and placed into specialized pre-cooling equipment to have the field heat quickly removed from the product.
  • Once the product has been pre-cooled, the pallets are placed in the cold storage warehouse, where it will sit in inventory for no more than three to five days before being shipped across country and sold to the public.

What can we expect from next-generation post-harvest technologies and processes?

Technologies and processes will continue to be refined and improved over time, with advances in pre-cooling equipment and design, new and innovative methods of refrigeration that might be less expensive, fully automated cold storage warehouses, well coordinated pick-up, and drop-off systems. We can expect all of these to become not just commonplace but likely mandated, as the expectations from all stakeholders in the food supply chain will rise as consumers increasingly demand high-quality fresh produce with long shelf life and the utmost consideration for food safety and food security.

In recent years, we’ve seen substantial supply chain disruptions. How has that come into play?

The COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine have made it exceedingly clear that our country’s supply chains were and are ill-prepared to handle such exogenous shocks to the system. Inflation, high food and energy prices, and delayed transport hurt the economy, and the food supply chain was no exception. By investing in the critical infrastructure supporting the transport and handling of fresh produce, we are being proactive in our mission of feeding the nation and safeguarding the longevity and sustainability of the most important asset class in the world — agriculture.

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