By Jan Lievens, post harvest specialist and director at Humiditas South Africa
For this farm, quality is not a once-off act – it is a habit throughout their processes.
Initial talks to install the applied postharvest technologies at the Agrostar facilities in Egypt started in 2019 whereafter the Harraz family, owners of Agrostar EFE, came down to South Africa early in 2020 to inspect similar installations and talk to the various South African farmers recognised for their quality that have implemented such systems and harvest philosophy with successful results over many years.
Unfortunately, the worldwide Covid-19 crisis stopped all international activities for two years and international travel bans made it impossible to consider any implementation anywhere. The project was therefore concluded in May of this year (2022).
Putting this project phase into context, Egypt has one of the longest histories of any country, tracing its heritage along the Nile Delta back to the 4th – 6th millennia before the common era.
Considered a cradle of civilisation, Ancient Egypt saw some of the earliest developments of writing, agriculture, urbanisation, organised religion and central government. Iconic monuments such as the Giza Necropolis and its Great Sphinx, as well the ruins of Memphis, Thebes, Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings, reflect this legacy and remain a significant focus of scientific and popular interest. Egypt’s long and rich cultural heritage is an integral part of its national identity, which reflects its unique transcontinental location being simultaneously Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African.
Agriculture is a major component of the Egyptian economy, contributing 11.3 percent to the country’s gross domestic product. The agricultural sector further accounts for 28 percent of all jobs, and over 55 percent of employment in Upper Egypt is agriculture-related.
Table grapes are one of the most widely grown fruit crops in Egypt. It is the second most important fruit crop after citrus. Egypt’s geographical spread of production enables fresh sweet grapes to be available from May to July. Table grapes are grown from Alexandria in the north of Egypt down to Aswan in the south.
Competition among Egyptian growers is therefore fierce. There is always more competition every year because of the new grape plantations coming into production, so the only thing that keeps one farm ahead of the others in the market is the ability of producing a high quality product.
And in the respect of quality, you will find Agrostar, located near Sadat City on the Alexandria Desert Road, growing and managing top quality table grapes.
Oscar Salgado, known as the most renowned and respected table grape expert on the planet, has labelled this particular farm as “the best table grape grower and overall packer in the world that he knows of and has seen over the years…” Quite the label for such a facility in the sector.
This farm was founded in 1995 by Mokhles Harraz, currently the presiding chief executive officer. Their head office is situated in Cairo in the Beverly Hills Business district. They have just over four hundred hectares of land and their own export company is known as Egyptian Fruit Exports (EFE).
Everything at the Agrostar farm comes down to delivering what is termed as a ‘super quality product’ to the most quality-demanding clients all around the world including retailers, wholesalers, and food service companies. Their network in fact delivers to over thirty five countries, while over 1,2-million cartons a year in a small time are dispatched from this well organised farm unit. This equates to around 45 to 55 40-foot containers a week and 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. Their strategy is to sell quality rather than quantity. And that they do, 100%. From the orchard management right through to the loading of the containers. No “chances” are taken anywhere. They do not chase huge volumes per hectare either as their managers look after the plant’s wellbeing and avoid “over-stressing” it, and more importantly, this strategy looks after the plant for many years to come.
This family-run business puts a strong emphasis on staff relations and many staff have a significant history with many years of dedicated service under the belt. The family aims to prioritise the supply of quality products through a sustainable production chain with a strong emphasis on food safety, sustainable water usage, fair treatment of farm workers, and satisfying their customers by building sustainable long term relationships at that level.
The facility and production process
The farm comprises a 4000 square metre pack house which is meticulously maintained and the most advanced technologies are used with a strict control protocol on every aspect of the operation. One such aspect is that the fruit is fully traceable to the orchard where it was picked.
To harvest the fruit at the most optimum pulp temperatures, the orchard teams start harvesting around 05h00 until 10h00. Within 20 to 30 minutes the harvested grapes get transported to the specialised pre-cooler where each pallet gets cooled down to the correct pulp core temperature with 95% RH. That process is very precisely monitored. The grapes get cooled to the exact core temperature at which the pack house is packing the grapes.
The whole temperature chain is monitored at every given stage, and is kept to an absolute high precision standard.
Once the containers arrive, they are checked for the correct temperature, pallets are moved through a temperature controlled airlock through proper dock seal installations into the containers. Everything is being done to adhere to proper controlled and monitored temperature management principles. One thing that is super obvious; there is no condensation in any of the pallets that get handled in this facility.
The packhouse, which uses the South African Adagin Smart Weigh system from Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, prevents over-packing of products. These systems save time and create more efficiency in the packhouse. The system also saves on waste and that makes up for a good 30% savings on a quality product.
The quality pack out in this packhouse is also something to observe and makes one think seriously. When they stop packing operations in their three different pack line areas at 16h00, these areas are clean within five minutes after packing. There is no mess on the floors, the packaging material is managed to a “T,” no mess, no spills, no waste at all. They clean the whole packhouse minutes after the operations stop in those sections.
The packed product which is again rigorously inspected for quality perfection by well trained and professional staff, is then transported to the cooling section of the packhouse. The quality control standards are extremely high and are strictly adhered to. All food safety regulations are further adhered to and strictly implemented. The safety for visiting clients is also taken extremely seriously at Agrostar.
The well-known saying of “doing it right even when nobody is looking” is really an attitude adopted daily by everybody working at this facility.
Cooling and equipment
The ‘cooling department’ of the farm has five fast-cooling tunnels together with six holding rooms, and a loading area with two professional dock seal/loading dock facilities. All of these sections are monitored and measured to perfection as nothing is left to chance in this facility. They believe strongly in the principle of: when you measure it, you can manage it.
The temperatures are kept to the industry needed specifications. All the fruit is pre-cooled to 17°C and then packed at 17°C. Once palletised the fruit goes into fast cooling tunnels that are working with a ΔT of max. 1.0°C on the coils. Once at protocol core temperature in all the boxes on each and every pallet, these get transferred to the holding rooms that are also monitored and regulated to avoid condensation at all times.
The site also includes their own solar system and generators in the event that the power may be disrupted.
In this phase of adopting the latest technology, Agrostar installed two rooms with:
- 12 of RH nozzles each
- 2 of RH controllers
- RO unit
- Dedicated water pumps with filters
- Water tanks
- Dedicated air compressor
Humiditas calculated the capacities needed on the incoming temperatures of the fruit from the land, combined with the pure cubic meter size of the cooler. Warm air can hold more moisture than cold air. The hotter the fruit the more RH must be available to put in. This farm really takes care of getting fruit in at the “right” temperature, and they do not harvest higher than 25°C. Hence their harvesting strategy and allocated timing due to the heat that develops in Egypt during the day.
The amount of nozzles calculated as a requirement determines the rest of the installation: compressed air volume and water volumes needed. In South Africa we have found sometimes people harvesting with core fruit temperatures at 35°C plus. That is detrimental to the quality of the fruit once off the vine.
Only the best will do and so even the channels where the various pipes were to be installed for the latest additions were made of stainless steel. Talking about attention to the details!
Another commendable observation of this site, when one walks through the facility, is that is is remarkable how well the plant is maintained and presented at all times.
Every day, after the practical packaging sessions are completed, the whole management team comes together to discuss the day that passed as well as the day forward.
From a commercial angle it is Ahmed Harraz who conducts proceedings with a capable hand in steering his team. Ahmed is multi-lingual, well-spoken, and very well connected. He takes care of all the negotiations worldwide and ensures that the top-quality product that this farm produces and handles gets to the right client each time.
Preserving quality after harvest involves every element of the process right down to the smallest details, and that shows. This is truly a remarkable farm and when Oscar Salgado made his bold statement, he is right, this farm proves it like with eating of the pudding.
The quality that is packed is simply out of this world and Agrostar makes inroads in the professional world of showing how to grow and manage table grapes. Many growers could take their example of ‘how it should be done’.
Quality is indeed not an act, it is a habit as this farm demonstrates day in and day out. This farm is definitely worthy of their ranking by Oscar Salgado. These quality sentiments are shared all over the world with their clients and we are extremely proud to be the preferred applied postharvest technologies partner to the farm and the Harraz family.