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Posts Tagged: postharvest

How one farmer’s invention is reducing postharvest losses around the world

In many developing countries, more than half of all fruits and vegetables are never eaten, but instead are lost, damaged or spoiled after harvest. These “postharvest” losses can mean that farmers need to sell their fresh produce as soon as it is harvested for whatever price they can get, before they lose the crops that represent investments of labor, water, and agricultural inputs. Improving how fruits and vegetables are handled after harvest can significantly prolong freshness — and cooling is key.

“The three most important aspects of postharvest handling are: temperature, temperature, temperature,” said Michael Reid, UC Cooperative Extension postharvest specialist who works with the Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis. “In the developing world in particular, affordable cooling technology is mostly absent.”

Cooling can be expensive — even for American farmers 

As a farmer in upstate New York, Ron Khosla knew this problem too well. His vegetable crop was spoiling too quickly, but he could not afford to buy a walk-in cooler for his small farm. So he invented a solution: a small electrical device he called a CoolBot that tricks an air conditioner into getting colder without freezing over, turning a well-insulated room into a cold room at lower costs than refrigeration. 

“I was hoping for a cheap, DIY solution that I could maintain. But mostly I just needed to keep my leafy greens and strawberries cold,” Khosla said. 

The CoolBot tricks an air conditioner into getting even colder, seen here keeping vegetables fresh in Cambodia, as part of a project with the Horticulture Innovation Lab.
One of his farming customers suggested he sell this device to other farmers, so he started a small business called Store It Cold, LLC. 

Khosla's CoolBot invention caught the eye of postharvest researchers, including Reid, who saw it in action on farms in California and decided to try using it in developing countries too.

CoolBot goes global with the Horticulture Innovation Lab

In one of his first projects with the Horticulture Innovation Lab (a program led by UC Davis with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development), Reid partnered with agricultural scientists from Uganda, Honduras and India to test the CoolBot in their climates. The four scientists also tested different local materials as insulation for each of the cold rooms.

Since that first project, the Horticulture Innovation Lab has tested CoolBots for farmer cold storage in Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and Honduras. 

Jane Ambuko of the University of Nairobi is another Horticulture Innovation Lab partner who has worked with the CoolBot. She received a grant to pilot this technology with mango farmers for a program called the Kenya Feed the Future Innovation Engine. Her project was featured on an NTV Food Friday news segment about the CoolBot earlier this month.

“I see the CoolBot making a whole lot of difference,” Ambuko said during a TEDxNairobi speech. “But for it to make that desired difference we have to make it cost-effective and affordable for the smallholder farmers.”

Adapting, troubleshooting and scaling up

In many places, the most expensive part of a CoolBot-equipped cold room is the structure for the insulated room, but both Reid and Khosla expect foam building materials to become more widely available and affordable.

From left, farmers Pak Ry and Brap Yart carry a bin of sponge gourd and banana leaves into a CoolBot-equipped cold room in Cambodia, to keep the produce fresh before sale. (Horticulture Innovation Lab photo)
Reid has contacted Khosla, the farmer-inventor, to troubleshoot challenges and discuss results from new locations. In places without reliable electricity, Reid has tested options for solar power.

In the meantime, Khosla's small business has been growing — selling to not only farmers, but also florists, micro-brewers, and other artisanal food businesses. Now with six employees, the company has sold more than 27,500 CoolBots in 51 countries.

“I'm thrilled and so grateful to be a part of helping lots of people. Working with USAID has gotten us known in other countries, and I'm looking forward to the day when we have enough in-roads in India and Africa where we can work directly with farmers there,” Khosla said. “People didn't believe the CoolBots worked at first. But now we get the most amazing letters from people whose businesses have doubled or quadrupled. Good postharvest care makes such a difference. Once they try it, then they see.”

A previous version of this article appeared in the newsletter for Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, and also in the Horticulture Innovation Lab blog.

Event - Sustainable solutions and extending California's agricultural expertise to the world: The UC Global Food Initiative and UC Blum Centers will host a Global Food Summit on Sustainable Solutions, May 5-6 at UC Irvine. Elizabeth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab and UC Cooperative Extension postharvest pomologist at UC Davis, will be speaking about technology transfer for horticulture-related technologies such as the CoolBot, seed drying beads, UC Davis-designed chimney solar dryer, pest-exclusion nets, and other tools the program adapts to the needs of farmers in developing countries. She will also be on a panel with two other UC Davis-based directors of Feed the Future Innovation Labs (UC Davis leads five Feed the Future Innovation Labs with funding from USAID — more than any other university). More info about this event.

Posted on Wednesday, March 30, 2016 at 8:55 AM

Hot days, cool rooms, tasty vegetables

I’ll admit that one of my favorite things to do on a hot day is to walk into an air-conditioned room. That burst of cool air in those first moments can be so refreshing.

It turns out I’m not alone — fruits and vegetables like to be cool on hot days too.

Shade provides some simple cooling at a fruit and vegetable market in Tanzania. (Horticulture CRSP photo by Kent Bradford)
“Temperature management, or cold chain, is the single most important factor in maintaining postharvest quality in fruits and vegetables,” said Elizabeth Mitcham, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis.

Controlling temperature helps regulate the aging process of a fruit, along with its water loss and microorganism growth. Storing fruits and vegetables at their lowest safe temperatures means they taste better and last longer.

To help us know the best ways to store fresh produce at home, the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center offers a free PDF poster Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for Better Taste, which includes tips for different fruits and vegetables, from avocado to watermelon.

Knowing the right temperature is only part of the battle for farmers, who are responsible for the first links in the cold chain. Getting produce out of the sun and cool for storage can be a big challenge — and an expensive one.

But a farmer in New York, Ron Khosla, answered this challenge with a tool that can help make cooling produce less expensive for small-scale farmers. He created the CoolBot, a micro-controller that turns a well-insulated room with a regular air conditioner into a commercial cool room for storing fruits and vegetables.

Just as small-scale American farmers struggle with affordable cooling, so do smallholder farmers elsewhere in the world. Researchers with the Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program (Horticulture CRSP) decided to test the CoolBot device, first at the UC Davis Student Farm and then with farmers in India, Honduras and Uganda.

Neeru Dubey, of Amity University, shows a CoolBot installed in India during a Horticulture CRSP project.
“The CoolBot creates, in my mind, the perfect compromise between effective cooling and reasonable cost,” said Mitcham, postharvest specialist and director of Horticulture CRSP.

Indeed, the CoolBot-equipped rooms worked, and the program is building more in Bangladesh right now. But there is a catch: Farmers must have access to reliable grid electricity for a cool room like this to work. To address this problem, the CoolBot in Uganda was powered with solar photovoltaic cells, but that led to another set of challenges — expensive equipment and fear of theft.

So how do you effectively cool vegetables, hot from a field, without grid electricity? A solution that is low-cost, effective and off-grid has not been found yet. In an effort to uncover such a solution, Horticulture CRSP will soon be launching a technology design competition that asks that very question. Can you answer this challenge?

Postharvest technology is something of a mystery

A field of strawberries.
Postharvest technology. Hmmm. What does that even mean to you?  Like most people, you’ve probably never thought about it, but it actually affects you every day. At least whenever you eat fruits and vegetables, and let’s face it, we all need to be eating more fruits and vegetables. 

Working at the Postharvest Technology Center, I often think about how to spread our mission of how to reduce postharvest losses and improve the quality, safety and marketability of fresh horticultural products. Part of doing this is educating consumers about making good choices so they have a better experience eating fruits and vegetables. And, if consumers have a better experience with fruits and vegetables, we eat more of them. If we can create demand at the consumer end, it will trickle through to the people that handle your produce: processors, retailers, distributors, carriers, marketers, shippers and finally growers.

I spoke with Jim Thompson, who wrote “From the Farm to Your Table: A Consumer’s Guide to Fresh Fruits and Vegetables” along with Adel Kader, two distinguished experts in the field of postharvest technology. Thompson said they wrote the publication knowing that, “For most consumers, it’s kind of a mystery what influences the quality of their produce. This publication answers some of the questions of how to make good choices at the market and at home.”

Thompson adds, “There are many things that can steal quality from produce. And it starts at the farm.” 

The type of cultivar the farmer chooses to plant and what kind of soil, temperature and light conditions, irrigation and fertilization practices at the farm affect flavor and nutritional quality. When the product was harvested, how it was handled prior to arrival at your market, and how your market stores the product all influence the quality of your produce. 

You certainly know which market in town has the best produce section, and it’s important to you. In fact, according to the 2011 National Grocers Association Consumer Survey Report, “Consumers say they are keeping health a priority—and 91 percent regard a stellar produce department as a ‘very important’ factor in where they buy groceries. This is precisely the same percentage as a year ago, which represented a dramatic five-point jump from the 86% level of two years ago.  While the recession may have withered wallets, it hasn’t hurt consumers’ resolve on this measure.”

If you’d like to learn more about how you can make the most of your fresh fruit and vegetable experiences, the Postharvest Technology Center is offering a 40 percent discount (making it only $4.20!) on “From the Farm to Your Table” through the end of September 2012. And as long as you’re there, our other consumer publication, the poster “Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for Better Taste” (just $1) would be a lovely addition to your refrigerator! 

Please contact us at (530) 754-4326 or postharvest2@plantsciences.ucdavis.edu  if you’re interested in ordering multiple copies for a nutrition, health or cooking class or you can purchase them through our online bookstore.

Posted on Tuesday, August 28, 2012 at 11:08 AM
Tags: Adel Kader (2), consumers (1), Jim Thompson (1), Postharvest (8), produce (2)

Addressing nutrition and poverty through horticulture

Nutrition, food security and sufficient family incomes are challenges in many parts of the world. Half the world’s people live in rural areas in developing countries. Because hunger and malnutrition are often linked to poverty, providing economic opportunities through horticultural production not only helps family incomes, but also addresses food security and nutrition. Training women to produce and market horticultural crops in the developing world also helps provide a much-needed income stream for families with children.

UC Davis is addressing food security and economic development in Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, and elsewhere, by coordinating an international horticulture program. The Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program (Hort CRSP; pronounced "hort crisp") is one of 10 CRSP programs that focus on global food production and solving food and nutrition problems in developing countries. UC Davis leads the Hort CRSP, with funding support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Examples of projects conducted by researchers and educators throughout the world include:

  • Inexpensive cold storage systems in rural, developing areas to prolong food longevity; see page 2
  • Concentrated solar drying of fruits and vegetables in East Africa; see page 3
  • Improving safety and quality of tomatoes in Nigeria; see page 3
  • Smallholder flower production in Honduras for export markets; see page 3

The overarching goals of the Hort CRSP are to reduce poverty and improve nutrition and health of the rural poor, while improving the profitability and sustainability of horticulture in the developing world. Priorities in the Hort CRSP include gender equity, sustainable crop production, postharvest technology, food safety, market access, and financing. The program awards research funding in the U.S. and abroad to:

  • Realize opportunities for horticultural development
  • Improve food security
  • Improve nutrition and human health
  • Provide opportunities for income diversification
  • Advance economic and social conditions of the rural poor, particularly women

Dr. Elizabeth Mitcham, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis and director of the Hort CRSP, notes, “By harnessing the research, training, and outreach expertise of the land-grant universities in the U.S. to work with partners in developing countries, we can improve horticultural capabilities in much the same way that the land-grant system helped revolutionize American agriculture.”

In the three years since the program’s inception, several projects have been completed, and many are ongoing. The program’s website offers a plethora of information, along with newsletters that highlight individual projects.

The program also has a YouTube channel, with videos on Hort CRSP projects. Some of the videos are about projects that are especially important in developing countries, including:

  • The TRELLIS project — bringing together graduate students and in-country development organizations; YouTube link
  • Using cell phones to give real-time information to growers in rural areas of India; YouTube link
  • Inexpensive cultivation practices for smallholder farmers; YouTube link
  • Indigenous products increase incomes in Ghana; YouTube link
  • Saving indigenous crop seeds in Southeast Asia for resource-poor farmers; YouTube link

UC Davis, ranked first in the U.S. on research related to agriculture, food science and nutrition, and plant and animal science, is positioned to serve global needs related to food and nutrition. Of the 10 CRSP programs administered by USAID, two of the programs are based at UC Davis — the Hort CRSP program, and the BASIS CRSP, which was highlighted in a recent Food Blog post and addresses financial issues related to agricultural productivity.

Produce handling in developing economies

There is a wide schism between the sleek mechanical harvesting machines that briskly traverse California’s fertile croplands versus the field worker with a machete and head-basket, or possibly a donkey laden with woven baskets, that is still most commonly found in many nations.

Produce loss continues to be a significant problem. Worldwide, it is estimated that as much as one-third of the produce grown is never consumed by humans (Kader, 2005). Many logistical challenges contribute to this loss, including: ineffective or absent cooling systems, slow and rough transportation, physical damage from rough handling, and poor sanitation conditions.

In 2010, one of the most popular free titles available on the Postharvest Technology Center’s website was “Small-Scale Postharvest Handling Practices: A Manual for Horticultural Crops.” Written by Lisa Kitinoja and Adel Kader, and currently translated into 10 languages, this title was downloaded by over 22,000 readers last year. While this useful resource is very popular in the United States among small-scale farmers, over 8,000 readers benefitted from the useful content translated into Indonesian, 4,000 from the Vietnamese translation, and over 3,000 from the Arabic translation. Readers learned information about the curing of tuber crops, designing picking poles and catching sacks to gently harvest fruit, and efficient designs for packinghouse layout.  (Link to all ten translations are found under the section “Small-Scale Postharvest Practices” at: http://postharvest.ucdavis.edu/Pubs/publications.shtml.)

“Many simple practices have successfully been used to reduce losses and maintain produce quality of horticultural crops in various parts of the world for many years,” asserted Lisa Kitinoja of Extension Systems International. “You don’t necessarily need costly handling machinery and high-tech postharvest treatments to be able to deliver quality produce to the marketplace. However, effective management during the postharvest period is key to reaching the desired objective.”

While most California produce shoppers are grateful for the quality and variety available in our markets, it’s nice to know that an effort is being made to improve the produce available to others not quite as fortunate as we.

Photo: Kumasi retail produce market, courtesy of Adel Kader.

Posted on Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 8:11 AM
  • Author: Mary E. Reed
Tags: Adel Kader (2), postharvest (8)

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