Postharvest Management of Commercial Horticultural Crops


To preserve quality and prolong the storage life of fruits and vegetables, it is essential to rapidly cool produce to optimum storage temperature (see Extension publication “Storage Conditions,” MF978). Studies have shown that precooling produce greatly increases storage life. Without precooling, many common fruits and vegetables would not be available in quantity and quality. Cold storage slows produce respiration and breakdown by enzymes, slows water loss and wilting, slows or stops growth of decay-producing microorganisms, slows the production of ethylene, the natural ripening agent, and “buys time” for proper marketing. Metabolic activity of fruits and vegetables produces heat. Produce also stores and absorbs heat. The objective of optimum storage conditions is to limit the production, storage and absorption of heat by produce. The amount of heat in produce is governed by the temperature around it. The temperature difference between newly harvested produce and its optimum storage temperature is an indicator of field-heat. Rapidly lowering the temperature of harvested produce to near storage temperature is known as precooling, or removal of field-heat. Produce is usually precooled to 7/8 or 88 percent of the temperature difference. Additional cooling is limited by the time and energy required to reduce the produce temperature to the optimum storage temperature.

Many methods are available to precool produce. The one you choose depends on several factors: 1. What method can the produce tolerate? 2. How quickly must the produce be cooled to ensure a high-quality product? 3. Is the method energy efficient? 4. Is skilled labor required? 5. How expensive is the equipment? 6. What utilities are available on the site? Precooling is highly recommended and often required by processors. When marketing produce in wholesale or processing outlets, a grower has minimal or no control over produce storage and handling after it is sold. If the produce does not hold up in the distribution chain, then the grower is usually blamed for having poor handling practices. Precooling “buys” the grower shelf-life time that the wholesaler and retailer may reduce with poor handling procedures. Precooling Methods Following are the most common precooling methods growers in the United States use: Room Cooling. Room cooling involves placing field temperature (warm) containers of produce in a cold room. Cooling is achieved by moving room air around the containers. Containers are stacked


individually so that cold air from the ceiling blows over or around the produce to contact all surfaces of the containers. Stacking containers for optimal cooling is a poor use of storage space because once cooled, they must be restacked tighter. An air flow rate of 200-400 cubic feet per minute is necessary to cool produce. Produce will dry out if a high relative humidity (90-95 percent) is not maintained. Containers should be well vented so as much air as possible can circulate through them. Spacing between the containers and walls must be from 6 to 12 inches, and between the boxes and ceiling, 18 to 24 inches. Room cooling is not recommended for bulk bins because they contain a much greater mass of produce than smaller containers. Proper design of the cooling room and refrigeration equipment is necessary for room cooling to work efficiently. The refrigeration equipment must be capable of cooling down fresh produce within 24 hours and of maintaining the storage temperature of the produce. Normally, much larger refrigeration equipment is needed to cool down the produce than to maintain the produce at a cool temperature. Forced-air Cooling. Forced-air cooling is similar to room cooling in that produce is placed in a coldstorage room. Forced-air cooling is designed to force cold air through produce containers instead of around them. Converting existing cooling facilities to forced-air cooling is practical and feasible. There are variations of forced-air cooling that fit specific container needs. The key to forced-air cooling is moving the cold air through the container and its contents. Important factors in container ventilation are location of container vents, stacking of containers, and size of the vents. Container vents should be aligned whether the containers are straight-stacked or crossstacked, to maximize air flow through the containers. If vents are too small or too few, air flow is slowed. If there are too many, the container may collapse. In this method, containers are stacked close together (tight). Five percent vent-hole space per side and/or end is best. Liners, bags, wrappers, or dividers can slow the flow of air through the container, so precooling produce is usually recommended prior to additional packing. The following are forced-air cooling alternatives.

Cold Wall. A permanent false wall or air plenum contains an exhaust fan that draws air from the room and directs it over the cooling surface (Figure 1). The wall is at the same end of the cold room as the cooling surface. The wall is built with a damper system that only opens when containers with openings are placed in front of it. The fan pulls cold room air through the container and contents, cooling the produce. Forced-air Tunnel. An exhaust fan is placed at the end of the aisle of two rows of containers or bins on pallets. The aisle top and ends are covered with plastic or canvas, creating a tunnel. An exhaust fan draws cool room air through the container vents and top (Figure 2). The exhaust fan may be portable, creating a single forced-air tunnel where needed, or it may be part of a stationary wall adjacent to the cooling surface, with several fans that create several tunnels. Serpentine Cooling. A serpentine system is designed for bulk bin cooling. It is a modification of the cold-wall method. Bulk bins have vented bottoms with or without side ventilation. Bins are stacked several high and several deep with the fork lift openings against the cold wall. Every other forklift opening—sealed with canvas—in the stack matches a cold wall opening. The alternate unsealed forklift opening allows cold air to circulate through the produce. Cold room air is drawn through the produce via the alternate unsealed openings in the stack and the top of the bin (Figure 3). Hydro-cooling. Hydro-cooling uses water as a coolant. Produce is either submerged or drenched with ice water (32°F). Both produce and containers must be water tolerant. The produce must also tolerate low levels of chlorine (50-200 parts per million chlorine), which is used as a disinfectant in the water. Sanitation and daily cleaning are essential to prevent storage diseases. There are two types of hydro-cooling systems— continuous and batch. The basic equipment in both systems consists of a water tank, pumps, a water discharge chamber, and the refrigeration unit. In the continuous system, produce moves through the water discharge chamber on a conveyor line. In the batch system, a pallet of produce is loaded in a chamber with the aid of a forklift, then cold water drenches the produce. The produce is removed when it reaches the desired temperature. 2


Hydro-cooling is an effective method of produce precooling but is best suited for medium to large produce operations and must be economically feasible to install. The electrical needs of the system must be sized according to the refrigeration system required. Package Icing. Package icing is used to cool some produce that is field packed into shipping containers. The ice may be finely crushed, flake ice, or a slurry of ice and water called liquid-ice. Liquidice is injected in the container and has better contact with the produce than the other forms. More expensive water-tolerant containers are required, and the added weight of the ice decreases the weight of actual produce that can be shipped. Vacuum Cooling. Produce is placed in a chamber and a vacuum is applied. The vacuum reduces the water vapor pressure in the produce, which evaporates moisture and cools the produce. The water loss is objectionable for some produce. A system called HydroVacuumTm cooling was designed to add water during the cooling cycle. Vacuum cooling works well with vegetables that have a high 4

surface-to-mass ratio, such as head lettuce or greens. It is the most energy efficient because only the produce is cooled. For an economical and efficient facility, vacuum cooling requires large quantities of produce, and not all crops are adequately precooled with this method. Because the equipment is expensive and we don’t grow many crops suited for vacuum cooling, it is not recommended for Kansas growers. Evaporative Cooling. Evaporative cooling is an inexpensive and effective method of lowering produce temperature (Figure 4). It is most effective in areas where humidity is low. Dry air is drawn through moist padding or a fine mist of water, then through vented containers of produce. As water changes from liquid to vapor, it absorbs heat from the air, thereby lowering the produce temperature. The incoming air should be less than 65 percent relative humidity for effective evaporative cooling. It will only reduce temperature, 10-15°F. This method would be suitable for warm-season crops requiring warmer storage temperatures (45-55°F), such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers or eggplant.

Sources of Cold Water. Alternative sources of cold water could be used to precool produce. However, water must be free of chemical and biological pollutants which could make the produce unacceptable for human consumption. A common source of cold water is well water. Well water temperature is about 50°F. Using well water for precooling produce is feasible with a 10°F temperature difference between the produce and water temperatures. Field-heat removal takes place in a container in which the produce is immersed. A major disadvantage of this method is the large amount of water used. Other uses for the wastewater generated by this method must be considered. Another alternative is the combination of well water with a refrigeration system to remove the heat transferred by the produce to the water. Used dairy refrigeration equipment could be easily adapted to combine well water with a low-capacity refrigeration system. Management Practices As with any kind of handling system, management practices can make the packing facility suc-

cessful or ineffective. In the early stages of produce handling, produce temperature is the best indicator of the future of produce quality and grower profits. Produce harvested early in the morning has lower temperatures and, therefore, smaller amounts of field-heat to be removed. Smaller amounts of field-heat result in lower energy use for precooling, faster cooling of produce, and quicker optimum storage or transportation temperatures. We recommend monitoring produce temperature during precooling. Doing so makes more efficient use of precooling equipment. Figure 5 shows how produce temperatures change during forced-air precooling from 75°F to 35°F using 35°F air. Produce cools at different rates, depending on where it is in the container and the stack. Produce along the outside of a container, more exposed to cool air, cools faster (lower line of the graph). Produce in the center of a container, shielded from cool air, cools slower (upper line of the graph). Exposed produce is ¼ cooled (65°F) after 30 minutes while shielded produce will not be ¼ cooled for more than two hours.


Mitchell, F. G., et al. 1972. Commercial Cooling of Fruits and Vegetables. Agricultural Experiment Station, Extension Service, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720.

Recommended Precooling Methods for Commonly Grown Vegetables and Fruits.* Vegetable Asparagus Beans, snap Beets Broccoli Brussel Sprouts Cabbage Carrots Cauliflower Chinese Cabbage Corn, sweet Cucumber Eggplant Garlic Greens Precooking method Hydro-cooling, Package icing Room cooling, Forced-air cooling, Hydro-cooling Room-cooling Package icing, Forced-air cooling, Hydro-cooling Hydro-cooling, Vacuum, Package icing Room cooling, Forced-air cooling Package icing, Room cooling Hydro-cooling, Vacuum cooling Hydro-cooling, Room cooling, Forced-air cooling Hydro-cooling, Package icing, Vacuum Forced-air cooling, Hydro-cooling Room-cooling, Forced-air cooling No precooling needed Hydro-cooling, Package icing, Vacuum 6

Recommended Precooling Methods for Commonly Grown Fruits and Vegetables.* Precooling method Vegetable
Herbs Lettuce Melons Okra Onions Onions, green Oriental vegetables Peas Peppers Potato Pumpkin Radish Rhubarb Rutabagas Spinach Squash, summer Squash, winter Sweet Potato Tomato Turnip Watermelon Fruit Apples Apricots Berries Cherries Grapes Nectarines Peaches Pears Plums Roomcooling, Forced-air cooling, Hydro-cooling Room cooling, Hydro-cooling Room cooling, Forced-air cooling Hydro-cooling, Forced-air cooling Forced-air cooling Forced-air cooling, Hydro-cooling Forced-air cooling, Hydro-cooling Forced-air cooling, Room cooling, Hydro-cooling Forced-air cooling, Hydro-cooling Room-cooling Hydro-cooling, Package icing Hydro-cooling, Package icing, Forced-air cooling Room-cooling, Forced-air cooling No precooling needed Hydro-cooling, Package icing Package icing Forced-air cooling, Hydro-cooling Room-cooling, Forced-air cooling Room-cooling, Forced-air cooling No precooling needed Package icing Room cooling, Forced-air cooling Room cooling Hydro-cooling, Package icing Forced-air cooling, Room cooling No precooling needed No precooling needed Room cooling, Forced-air cooling Room cooling, Hydro-cooling, Vacuum, Package icing No precooling needed

*F= Forced-air Cooling, H = Hydro-cooling, I = Package Icing, R = Room Cooling, V = Vacuum Cooling and N = No Precooling Needed.


About the authors: Karen L.B. Gast is Extension Post Harvest & Marketing Specialist, Horticulture; Rolando A. Flores is Extension Food Engineering Specialist, Agricultural Engineering. Illustrations by Darla Whipple-Frain COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SERVICE, MANHATTAN, KANSAS MF-1002 August 1991
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension Work, acts of May 8 and June 30,1914, as amended. Kansas State University, County Extension Councils, Extension Districts and United States Department of Agriculture Cooperating, Richard D. Wootton, Associate Director. All educational programs and materials available without discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. AB8-91—1.5M; 11-94—1M File Code: Horticulture 11 (Commercial)

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