By Matt Browning, Director of Communications
Grocery shopping has become quite a chore for Robin Turner. The WVSU extension agent spent the better part of 2015 learning about the proper handling and storage of fresh produce for the University’s new cold chain initiative, which educates farmers on how to keep their crops fresher longer during the post-harvest process.
“Shopping can be difficult,” Turner says with a laugh. “I’ll sometimes walk into a market and cringe at how things are being stored and showcased.”
Now armed with a wealth of knowledge of proper food handling and storage, Turner is on a mission to impart the same education onto the state’s farmers, with the ultimate goal of providing the consumer with better fruits and vegetables. Thanks to a grant from the USDA’s 1890 Capacity-Building Grants Program, she’s well on her way.
Turner spent the fall and winter providing training to a series of 20 farms during the first pilot phase of the program. Through a series of four workshops, participants learned about all aspects of care before harvest, after harvest, all the way to the consumer, using proper cold storage techniques.
Cold storage, or cold chain, technology refers to the proper refrigeration and storage of crops during the time between harvest by the farmer and end purchase by the consumer to help ensure peak freshness. But, it’s more than simply temperature control – it’s a scientific process with multiple facets of instruction.
One facet, for example, is educating farmers on information they can share with the buyer to prolong the life of the fresh produce. It’s all meant to create a healthier system of locally grown produce in the Mountain State.
“The local foods movement is being embraced all over, which is great,” she says. “But we’ve learned that many small-scale farmers lack the resources necessary to maximize the life of the crops they’re growing. The old adage that one bad apple destroys the bunch, for instance, is true, and that surprises some people.”
Arming the state’s small farmers with knowledge about post-harvest, cold storage technologies will help fill the gap that currently exists in farmer education. The resources that do exist, Turner says, tend to target large-scale producers, not necessarily the family farmer peddling wares at the local farmers market.
“Lots of small farms are participating in farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, and so on,” Turner says, “but the crops aren’t maintaining long-term freshness because of improper cold storage practices during post-harvest.”
Part of the problem is not only a lack of education but also a lack of affordable resources. WVSU’s project is not only providing the needed education but also looks to provide the same high-level resources available to large-scale producers at a more affordable price.
“We’re hoping to show them, ‘here’s what the big guys can do, and here’s how you can implement the same practices on a smaller, more affordable scale,’” Turner says.
Teaming with the West Virginia National Guard, WVSU Extension Service is helping repurpose many of the state’s former armory sites into agricultural education and resource centers, complete with cold storage equipment and technology that will be readily available to small farmers. Turner has been providing workshops through the project at armory sites already, and demand is increasing.
“The first series of trainings has gone very well, and interest is growing,” Turner says. “We’re excited to see what’s next.”
The pilot phase targeted 20 farms in a regional cluster, and organizers plan to expand into new regions of the state soon. In the meantime, Turner will continue working with the pilot participants to ensure they are correctly implementing what they learned during winter training into the farms during the growing season. She’ll be performing site visits this spring and summer, providing farmers with technologies such as CoolBot thermostatic controllers and cooler systems to incorporate into their practices.
The cold chain initiative is supported by the USDA 1890 Capacity Building Grants Program Award No. 2014-38821-22397 and the 1890 Center for Excellence Award No. CSF-1609-W.