By Jan Lievens
A saying goes … “If you want to fly with the eagles, stop swimming with the ducks”.
Last season was essentially a disaster for a lot of our farms. And everybody was, and is still blaming the logistics of things.
The harbors in particular took the brunt and yes, there are huge problems:
- having no slots and/or power to let the containers work
- wrong cranes (the systems bought are not correct for our wind conditions)
- letting people go on leave in peak times
- union driven general bad work ethics
- non-motivated staff
- corruption, and
- slow work rates
These are all factors that are actually – for our industry or any other industry for that matter – really unacceptable. But further, this has been coming for a long time and needs to be addressed, not yesterday, today, or tomorrow, but donkey years ago!
Yes, it is simply unacceptable and deplorable. And to be honest, some people deserve a huge kick in certain places where it hurts. More than once as well. But let us be honest and brutally critical, is that really the only issue at stake here? Nope. And that is something that you and the industry leaders should know already. You’d better start having a deep look into your overall operations. Before and after harvest.
Two years ago, I wrote an article: “Houston we’ve got a problem…”, just before the Corona crisis hit us.
Maybe you should read that article again. You deliver a perfect fruit at the point of harvest, and for that you must call in the right independent experts to get that right. There are postharvest problems that are created in the orchard as well…
Once you have grown that perfect product, the last trajectory starts – delivering that perfect product to your end consumer. But that hinges on the quality of your fruit – and let us face it, that you have got more or less absolutely right, if you do everything right of course up until then.
However, it is not just about quality, getting your top-quality fruit in the right condition to the “other side” is as important and is becoming a real challenge as professionals have now confirmed that the “transit time” from vine to mouth from South Africa is exceeding well over 60 days! In some cases, one of my contacts was indicating we are getting closer to 75 days … and this is where you will have to do the right things first time, every time.
A recent postharvest audit in the Orange River on a well-known table grape farm proved once again that there are still several issues that are left unattended and that, to say the least, contributes a hell of a lot to the problems. All at farm level, before your produce gets loaded in the container that is.
PLEASE, do not start yet another study to investigate this. There are plenty of those done, worldwide, for nearly fifty years in all corners of the world. I must stress that we do not waste time on trying to prove the same issues over and over again! You do not have the luxury to do this.
We have said it before and will keep on repeating it: “Nature never breaks her own laws…”
Again, the abovementioned phrase is not from us but from Leonardo da Vinci, who at the time did a lot of things but using applied postharvest technologies was not one of them.
However, what he said is true and especially applies here.
With regards to preserving the condition of your fruit, I really think the industry must stop trying to transport water from point A to B with a perforated bucket. Start using a proper bucket. Only this way will you be able to do what you should do for all involved. We have been writing a good couple of articles on our specialty: applied postharvest technologies.
The word “specialty” is used because in our field, it is not just about selling machines, it is about bringing a solution to the table.
Recently, we started embarking on a campaign to emphasise the importance of this postharvest philosophy on our three focus areas: fruits, vegetables, and flowers. And within the fruit group, we specifically target the table grape industry.
And guess what, we were recently in Egypt where we implemented our philosophy and technologies on a super quality farm that works for 4-6 weeks per season… You read this correctly, 4 to 6 weeks “only”. But everything comes down to delivering a super quality product to the most quality demanding clients all over the world in the RIGHT CONDITION.
Even the tracks where the water and air pipes were mounted were made of stainless steel.
Around 45 to 55 forty-foot containers a week. They have a pack out quality rate of 96%+.
The whole farm just oozes quality, in every department, every operation and in every employee on every level. They sell quality rather than quantity. And that they do, 100%.
From the orchard management right until the loading of the containers – no chance is taken anywhere. They do not chase huge volumes per hectare as their managers look after the plant’s wellbeing and avoid “over-stressing” it and what is more important, looking after the plant for years to come.
Oscar Salgado has labelled this farm as “the best table grape grower and overall packer in the world that he knows and has seen over the years…” It is here were we met with Oscar Salgado, from San Lucar, who shared his worldwide used presentation on table grapes and what do we see in his presentation? Our postharvest schedule for the preserving of quality after harvest through preserving the condition of your fruit. Put right into his PowerPoint presentation as he knows we are right. He in fact saw the article “Houston we have a problem” and started taking an interest in our work.
To add to this statement, a masters student at the University of Stellenbosch recently proved it through a three-year study, in a thesis of 132 pages, that we have been right all along as well.
Let me put it brutally, honestly, and straight forward to you, and in fact it is remarkably simple: your table grapes will not reach your client in top quality condition by chance, but by changing your postharvest approach, philosophy, and procedures. And that is talking about the entire process.
Most farmers, in general, try to grow the best possible product in the orchard. Worldwide. Simple. Ninety-five percent of all her or his efforts are put into this. The last 5% gets forgotten. Let me explain…
Everybody knows the famous industry fact that an un-cooled table grape deteriorates in an hour at 32°C as much as in a day at 4°C or a week at 0°C… On face value, which is a very straightforward rule if you lose time, you lose quality.
Still, the industry is battling with this concept and a lot of time is lost after harvesting the table grapes in the field. That action is suicidal. It is simple: if you lose four hours in cooling delays, you lose four weeks’ shelf life. Simple. And in many cases, 4 hours is putting it mildly.
Not only that, if you know that a grape stem dries out fifteen times faster than its berry, you better take notice. These are some of the main pitfalls after harvest that destroy the condition of your product:
- All too often unnecessary delays in the orchard
- improper initial precooling with too low RH
- low RH
- too high windspeeds
- no bacterial control
- driven by fast output in final cooling, forgetting correct core temperatures in all boxes
- creating condensation due to improper temperature control
- long packing procedures
- wrong airflow carton design
- delays in cooling, both for initial pre-cooling and final cooling
- transport in hot temperatures without protection on open trucks
- waiting in the sun to get off loaded at final cooperative cooling facilities
- containers not on the right temperatures
- inadequate loading procedures
- containers not monitored for temperature and humidity during the voyage
- bad pallets
- inadequate packaging material
- wrongly designed and improper use of cooling tunnels
- improper temperature control in the packhouse
- heat developing door openings, and mismanagement
These are just “a couple” of the issues at stake here. And they are all in the last five %…
In fact, again, it is amazingly simple: your table grapes will not reach your client in top quality condition by chance, but by changing your postharvest approach, philosophy, and procedures.
Keeping on doing the same things year after year and expecting a change in quality of your fruit’s condition is pure insanity!
Recently, a well-known South African Table Grape technical specialist from one of the top companies dealing with fruit, told me that if the industry would apply our philosophies on the farm after harvest, 50% of all export quality claims would disappear in South Africa. And then we are talking about a production of around seventy-five million cartons a year… Makes one think.
Professor Luis Luchsinger once told me that you will never be a prophet in your own country. That is your loss. Simple. The knowledge and expertise are here, use it. Sooner rather than too late.
If you want to farm in the future, you have no choice. The farms that supply quality condition fruit will survive; the ones that do not will get eaten instead of selling an edible product. And if you are honest, you know that the client is already picking out PUK codes that do not give them stress.
I am sure you do not like stress, and you want to avoid it. Again, do something about it, change your attitude on how you look towards your business. You know the most famous saying in the industry: “The farmer’s best year is next year…” Really? I doubt it. Your years are running out.
For the smart “oaks,” this is valid for all fruits in South Africa. With temperature corrections of course. And for those who think table grapes are difficult? If you farm blueberries, berries, and cherries, you better read this article again. Time you get into the right ages, rather than dive into the dark ages.
If you do not change your ways of doing things, you will keep on swimming with the ducks. Only problem is that there is a huge vortex in the water that will suck you down, whether you like it or not. My advice if you are really a quality outfit… start preparing to fly with the quality eagles.
If you do not, best go talk now to your bank manager to hand over the keys of the farm. The quality guys who read this will understand. The others should go and look for a new field of operation and start a retraining program. It really is that simple.
About Jan Lievens
Jan Lievens, born in Belgium, is a graduate civil engineering(B) and international senior consultant for engineered applied postharvest technology at Humiditas South Africa. With over 20 years of experience in this field, he is widely regarded as a specialist in the fruit-, vegetable- and flower industry with regards to humidity, airborne bacteria and ethylene removal, both locally and internationally. Furthermore, he also designed airflow-friendly packaging systems for the industry with proven results.