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Rubbing salt into the wound

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Supplied | Jan Lievens

Supplied | Jan Lievens

By Jan Lievens

Last week, somebody told me that with some of my articles I rub salt into the wound of the industry… Really?

It has never been and never will be my intention to rub salt in any wound for that matter, just to prove that point.

But, if the industry is ‘battling’ with simple principles for over 46 years without really implementing nearly anything on what is known and explained, you wonder whether it is really rubbing salt into a wound or just ruffling feathers to organise a serious wake-up call for that same industry.

I was invited out two weeks ago by a German table grape specialist buyer from a German fruit trading company. After a very nice dinner in Paarl, he stated the following: “After talking to you and realising that we work with a very technical and difficult product like table grapes, I now realise that for all these years we really did not put enough emphasis on correct postharvest procedures after harvest…”

That makes one think. Unfortunately, he is not alone in making this statement. More and more people start realising that in fact that statement is a sad reality. Oscar Salgado has put it forward on many occasions on an international level.

The reality now comes home as well. Due to longer transit times, the mistakes made after harvest are coming out more and more at the overseas destinations. And that has got one simple reason, mistakes made in postharvest are cumulative and irreversible and will come out, sooner rather than later. And that immediately affects your returns. Some producers under so much pressure at the moment may simply not make it for very much longer. Last season showed what happens when you get ‘hammered’ with quality claims.

In another chat I had with a highly professional packhouse manager recently, when he described the various temperature regimes that were handled, it became clear that the industry battles with the laws of nature. Condensation is practically the only ‘issue’ that you must avoid, yet hundreds of growers do just that in their postharvest processes by not sticking to simple natural laws: Cold fruit in hot air or warm fruit in cold air creates condensation.

Please note that nature never ever breaks her own laws. If you think you can change that fact, be my guest. You will fail. Each time. It is that simple. But, sometimes to understand simplicity in science, you must know how to understand it. To do that, it takes years of really going to the root cause analysis of issues at hand.

During my audits worldwide, I am nearly each time flabbergasted on the way most of the professional people design, implement and execute postharvest principles. There is a genuine lack of attention to detail or real understanding of what is at stake to handle fruit, vegetables and flowers. There is a difference in making something cold and cooling fruit, vegetables and flowers in the proper way.

It really looks like there is some form of ‘copy and paste’ culture going about in the industry: simply push Ctrl C and Ctrl V. Maybe on your computer it goes like that, but not in our industry. Basic natural principles of nature’s law are simply ignored.

There are so many new and interesting products and developments at hand and developed by serious worldwide players, but they simply do not get implemented. As the harvest season approaches, once again we are asked to make many quotes to help alleviate some of the problems that occur after harvest. Some progressive farmers do implement our technologies and philosophies with great success. But some rather ignored the good advice and will again do exactly what they were doing for all these years. And guess what, the problems will be the same again…

Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” That is where I also do not understand the industry. Often a solution that can bring you big results ‘only’ costs half of the value of a full fruit container. Still, some ‘okes’ rather take the same risks repeatedly. You grow the best possible product on the vine, orchard or field and invest huge amounts of money to get that top-quality product eventually produced and then…

The German was right: “I now realise that for all these years we really did not put enough emphasis on correct postharvest procedures after harvest.”

That is why one must ruffle feathers, simply hoping that the industry will take this subject seriously. That is not rubbing salt into any wound. In fact, using salt can be beneficial to heal wounds as well. If you wait for a miracle, we cannot make wine out of water, but we can turn wine back into normal water.

And that is a subtle but very important difference. Forget about rubbing salt into wounds, act now, before it is too late.

About Jan Lievens

Jan Lievens, born in Belgium, is a graduate civil engineering(B) and international senior consultant for engineered applied postharvest technology at UTE 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.

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.

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