It seems that if 2020 has a theme, it will be about not taking basic things for granted like spending time with friends and relatives, having a home that hasn’t burned down, having clean, breathable air and enjoying time outdoors.
For our food supply, refrigeration is the equivalent of fresh air for humans. Without it, fresh food would not exist for most people.
I’m not talking just of the refrigerators and freezers in our houses, although those are critical to our enjoyment of fresh food. I’m speaking of the “cold chain” — the vast refrigeration infrastructure whereby food is kept cold every minute, from farms to retail outlets and every step in between.
This system would be slightly less complex if all perishable items could be stored and shipped at the same temperature. The opposite is true. Fresh produce, if exposed to the freezing temperatures used to safely store meat, is destroyed. And among different types of produce, different temperatures are required to avoid spoiling or damage.
Here at our little farm, we have 4 different coolers for storing produce. We are constantly making adjustments in temperature to ensure that we have the ideal conditions for all the products we are harvesting. During the height of summer, for example, two entire coolers are set to 50 degrees — the best temperature to store tomatoes. Another is kept at 38, for items like Potatoes and Carrots. The fourth is kept just above freezing, for Peaches and Sweet Corn.
Once a month, on average, one of the coolers breaks down, requiring us to shuttle the produce inside to another cooler or into one of our refrigerated trucks until it can be fixed. We have alarms on every cooler that call our cell phones to alert us when this happens if it’s after hours or on a Sunday. Nonetheless, over the years we have had plenty of produce spoil due to cooler failures.
But what happens if a power outage knocks out electricity to all of our coolers on the same day? For the most part, the produce will stay cool for up to 12 hours. If the power outage persists, we would transfer the most sensitive produce into our two “back-up” refrigerated trucks. We have resisted the idea of purchasing a back-up power system for the coolers, as a generator large enough to run them all would cost almost $100,000. It’s hard to justify that expense for a piece of equipment that might get used a few days a year at most.
What happened the night that the LNU fire barreled down towards Winters from Lake Berryessa was a “perfect storm”. The fire took out a number of powerlines, causing an outage at our coolers. It was 100 degrees when it happened. Much of the produce inside the coolers had been harvested the previous day in 105 degree heat and had not yet cooled down and was still warm the next morning when we transferred it into our trucks.
The mobile refrigerators on our trucks are not powerful enough to actually cool down produce, only to keep already-cold items at the same temperature. The extreme heat during the power outage, which lasted about 36 hours, made it even harder for the truck coolers to operate. While the thermostat was reading 36 degrees, it’s very likely that the fruit and vegetables in truck never got that cold.
Peaches and Nectarines can be stored at two different temperature ranges. Kept at “room temperature” — 65 degrees or more, they will quickly ripen, from the firm stage we harvest them at to soft and juicy in 24-48 hours. Stored below 36 degrees, they will keep for up to three weeks and still ripen normally when brought up to room temperature.
If the fruit is exposed to temperatures in the 40s for more than a few hours, the flesh becomes mealy and dry, losing all its flavor. In the peach industry this is known as “the killing zone”, and it is responsible for millions of perfectly good peaches being ruined every year. It is difficult bordering on impossible to detect the change in texture from visual inspection.
As a result of this failure of our “cold chain” due to the catastrophic fire, several thousand pounds of our peaches and nectarines became mealy. Many of those ended up in your CSA boxes the week after the fires. You should have already received an email about the mealy peaches, and a credit for them.
Set against the landscape of destruction left behind by the firestorms of 2020 — dozens of lives and now thousands of homes and businesses — the loss of a few thousand pounds of peaches is barely worth mentioning. But I wanted to make sure to explain the connection to the fires.
It was an unfortunate end to what we, and most of you — judging by the responses we received — feel was an otherwise extremely enjoyable peach season with lots of great tasting fruit. In its own way it’s kind of a metaphor for California’s entire summer of 2020, which has literally “gone down in flames”. We’re hoping for a calm, cool and damp fall that washes the ashes off the plants and puts out all the fires.