Technology Helping To Bring That “Fresh-Picked” Peach To Consumers
Imagine what it’s like to pick a fresh peach off of a tree in an orchard. The smell, the texture of that perfectly colored and perfectly ripe peach. Now, imagine what it’s like to be a consumer buying fresh peaches in a grocery store. Is the experience the same?
“It’s difficult in the supply chain to get the true orchard experience to the consumer,” says Chalmers Carr III, a first-generation peach grower and owner of Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, SC.
That’s the challenge facing today’s peach growers. How do you take that orchard experience and get as close to it as you can with the produce you distribute to grocery stores around the country? Although there are a few components in play, it also comes down to good postharvest handling.
Carr’s operation recently upgraded the packing plant to a state-of-the-art packing facility to lead the charge in postharvest and food safety procedures.
“We like to be first into the marketplace with improved technology whether it’s in the packing shed, new varieties, horticulture techniques, irrigation monitoring, etc.,” he says.
Leading The Charge With Upgrades
The overhaul of Titan Farms’ packing plant was three years in the making as Carr noticed there were new technologies in fruit handling equipment and a shift in packaging options. However, the Listeria scare that hit the fresh stone fruit industry last summer caused Carr to take a second look at those first designs.
“Even though we were already a leader in food safety, that made me stop and re-evaluate the project and to incorporate a lot more food safety upgrades at the same time,” he says.
Carr selected Compac Sorting Equipment, Inc., of New Zealand to build the new packing line while handling the facility upgrades locally. The total project came to the tune of $6.5 million.
“We completely retrofitted our building and enclosed it. We were always considered an open-air shed,” he says.
The packing shed now functions in a controlled atmosphere with an HVAC system and double doors installed to keep out air pollution and insects. Improvements to the facility also include a drop FRP ceiling, epoxy coated floors, new shipping cooler, and shipping office with truck drivers’ showers and lounge.
This new packing shed at Titans Farms functions in two zones: the first is the “wet” area which is now completely enclosed and maintained at 45°F. This zone houses four hydro coolers where fresh peaches, coming in from the fields, are cooled to 34°F, stopping the ripening process which then leads to the beginning of the packing line where the peaches are washed and waxed. Temperature management is a big part of the new packing line to ensure the cold chain isn’t broken. In the next zone, peaches are graded, sorted, and placed in containers or stored for further processing.
The Compac line ― with all stainless-steel equipment ― takes 32 pictures of each peach as it processes through the line and sorts them by color, defect, weight, and dimensional sizing. Titan Farms can size each peach by true diameter ― whether it is 2 ½, 2 ¾, to 3-inch fruits.
“From a fruit-handling standpoint, one thing I’m proud of is there’s no place in this packing line where fruit drops,” Carr says. “It is always transferred by being gently let down, so we cut out any bruising that would occur during the packing process.”
Carr calls his line a hybrid, the first of its kind in the stone fruit industry, which has a commit to pack component that places the peaches into packaging for immediate sale. In addition though, the line has presort capabilities placing graded fruit into plastic totes to be stored for packing on one of two smaller lines and placed into value-added packaging. Carr says this allows Titan Farms to easily adapt to new packaging and consumer demands while driving efficiency. Once the fruit is packaged, a PTI ― Produce Traceability Initiative ― barcode label is placed on every package.
Postharvest handling has changed significantly since the early days of the peach industry as Carr, president of the National Peach Council, says. Now, if growers want to get their peaches in different retail chain stores, they must adhere to one of the many food safety certifications.
“Several years back, one of our retail partners asked us to be one of the first to go global food safety certified (GFSI) – which is a much bigger step than just your GAPs and state certifications. GFSI is very intense; I presently have four employees who are completely trained as SQF practitioners coupled with HACCP certification too. One of my employees even teaches part of the food safety course for the University of Georgia program,” he says.Another big part of food safety is traceability. Carr says Titan Farms implemented complete product traceability in the early 2000s. Anecdotally, though, Carr says this move was less about tracing his produce and was motivated more by inventory management needs. But now everything is focused on the traceability of fresh produce. He is glad he made the investment early on.
“Every case that leaves here has a barcode on it. We can trace everything that happened to that peach – from what crew harvested it on what day, what hydro cooler it went through, what cooler it sat in, what day it was packed, where did it sit after it was packed, what shipment it went on, and who received it. We could do a full blown recall in less than two hours and know where every one of the peaches from a certain field went to,” he says.
Produce Safety Involves Everyone
The whole produce industry needs to place food safety as its number one priority, no exceptions, says Carr. If a particular produce commodity is involved in a food safety recall, statistically consumers will avoid that product for at least six months. So, if a food safety incident was to hit a peach grower, in the summer season, the detrimental impact would be felt throughout the industry.
“It isn’t going to matter whether it’s the guy who grows 5 acres of peaches or the guy who grows 5,000 acres of peaches. If somebody gets sick off of peaches, we are all in the same boat,” he says. “Proposed exemptions for small farms allude that the small farmer can’t afford to do it.’ I don’t know if the small farmer can afford not to do it.”
Food safety, Carr says starts with total buy in from everyone, top down lead by example.
“It’s a commitment, you don’t just do food safety on one day of the year. You do food safety every day you go to work,” he says. “It starts in the fields and the orchards and then it comes to the shed where water treatment, equipment sanitation, and documentation are critical. That’s the mindset that farmers have got to get into.”
Food safety is a big part of what makes Titan Farms a leader in the industry. It’s not something Carr practices on certification day. And his employees aren’t just going through the motions – it’s something they believe in and take to heart.
“I believe in food safety. I think it’s a moral obligation. At Titan, it’s a team effort and everybody believes in it,” he says.
Carr along with all of the peach growers are focused on increasing peach consumption which has been flat the last decade. With new equipment and better technology, growers are improving their postharvest handling, varieties grown, harvest timing, and packaging options, all of which should increase peach consumption.
“Today’s consumer has many different options of what they can eat, from grapes, cherries, melons, berries, to exotic fruits. So we have to be able to put a peach out there that eats well constantly to compete against the other commodities,” he says. “We’re not competing against other peach growers, we’re competing against other commodities, and we want to be the consumer’s favorite summer fruit.”
State Of The Southeast Peach Industry
To most consumers, Georgia is known as the Peach State, but it’s actually No. 3 in the country in peach production. California is No. 1, with Carr’s home state of South Carolina being the second largest peach producing state.
“The whole Southeast is generally about 6 million boxes of peaches if Mother Nature will leave us alone,” says Chalmers Carr III of Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, SC.
Titan Farms makes up for one-third of the peaches grown in the Southeast on a little more than 5,300 acres of peaches, shipping about 2 million boxes of peaches annually. South Carolina, produces about 4.2 million boxes of peaches, making up 70% of the Southern peach industry.
“Here in the southeast, we’re turning a lot of heads in the retail world. Georgia and South Carolina are both increasing our acreage. We’re finding a very good demand for our product and it’s coming from a lot of postharvest improvements. I think the Southern peach industry has a very peachy future.”