Refrigeration: Keeping Produce Cool for…80 years?

Humans excel at taking technology for granted.  Take cell phone and internet service, for instance.  In just twenty years, they have gone from being a rare luxury of the privileged to an absolute necessity for modern societies.  They don’t fail often, but when they do, it can ruin your day.
Refrigeration is a relatively recent technology as well.  Not as new as the computer, but newer than the automobile.   Before the widespread adoption of electricity, ice used to be harvested like a farm crop or forest product.     It was transported from cold places to warm ones by ship and truck, and used in “iceboxes”.
Before refrigeration, fresh fruit and vegetables were highly perishable and supremely local:  grown in your backyard or within 50 miles or so of your home.  My great-grandfather harvested fresh produce every morning on his farm outside Plainfield, New Jersey and then delivered it, door-to-door, in the town every afternoon.
My mom turned 80 last week:  her family had an icebox when she was born and didn’t get their first fridge until several years later.  The widespread availability of refrigeration beginning during that time allowed any number of scarcities to become commonplace, including fresh milk, fresh meat and fresh produce.  Now, even my mom takes it completely for granted that she can go to the local store at any time of day and buy highly perishable fruits and vegetables of her choice from their refrigerated produce section.
It’s one thing to take the growing of the food for granted.  That seems to be our birthright as Americans — citizens of the most productive agricultural nation in the world.  But it’s another thing to have complete and total faith in refrigeration all the way from the edge of the farm field to the store, and at every step in between.
Many fresh produce items, unrefrigerated, will begin to wilt or spoil after even an hour if not refrigerated.  You have almost certainly experienced this if you’ve left leafy greens in your car too long, or even out on the counter.  And yet those same items, kept under constant refrigeration, will stay fresh for a week or longer.
Large-scale refrigeration is immensely expensive to buy, run and maintain.  It’s one of the primary obstacles to farmers growing fresh fruit and vegetables.  We have four small walk-in coolers on the farm in addition to our three refrigerated trucks.  This time of year they have to work hard 24 hours a day to cool down thousands of pounds of hot produce and keep it fresh.
At least once each summer, generally on a Saturday night or Sunday when temperatures have been well over 100, one of the coolers fails.  The temperature alarm system notifies us via text and we have to race over and attempt to relocate all the produce in the broken-down cooler:  to another, often-very-full cooler, or to one of the delivery trucks.  It’s not uncommon that we suffer losses when this happens.  If the power goes out for more than a few hours during a heatwave, which it has once or twice, our losses are much more extensive.
Like everyone else, I take many technologies for granted.  But refrigeration is not one of them.


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