How Ontario’s tender fruit growers are taking care of business

Ontario’s tender fruit industry is eagerly anticipating the 2016 season with the promise of a loyal consumer market and stronger prices. Several research projects are underway to improve cold chain management and to ensure a consistent eating experience. Peach and grape farmer David Hipple is one of the research participants near Beamsville, Ontario. Here, he’s pictured in his Harrow Diamond peach orchard with Mexican workers Vincente Perez (closest), Erasmo Grandos and his faithful field supervisor, Cadbur
Three-year Average Ontario Crop Value 2011-2013.
Tender fruit grower Ryan Tregunno watches Loblaw’s Pat Gilbert conduct a brix test on yellow plums.

Beamsville, Ontario – The future is looking in the pink right now. That’s what David Hipple sees as he walks his 150 acres of tender fruit orchards and grape vineyards. 

How times have changed since an industry consultant’s report from 2010 said, “Fragmentation, lack of collaboration and inconsistent application of quality control techniques across the value chain greatly weaken the industry’s value proposition to consumers, and ergo, retailers.”

For Hipple and 300 other Ontario tender fruit growers, the criticism stung. Although proximity to market is an advantage over California peaches, they realized that the local food trend could not carry them entirely. They needed to sell retailers – and their customers -- on a consistent eating experience.

It’s an industry worthy of investment with farmgate receipts in 2015 of $56 million. Of that, peaches in fresh and processing forms account for nearly two-thirds of the Ontario crop value. With those hard numbers as a backdrop, a 
strategic plan launched Fruit Tracker software for orchard and logistics management. More objective quality measurements such as brix testing, for example, are now used to evaluate sweetness and appropriate picking times.  

“Strategic plans need tactical execution,” says Sarah Marshall, manager of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers.  “That document helped identify the gaps in knowledge and where research and capital investment should be spent to better the industry. That research and investment starts at the grower level, but also has to focus on the needs of the entire marketing system. A well-executed plan with long term commitment to change will elevate the profitability of all of our partners.”

The updated 2013 business plan identified specific priorities:  a forced-air cooling best practice guideline for harvest 2015 and a goal of implementation for 80 per cent of Ontario tender fruit by 2020; a goal of 80 per cent grower 
participation in Fruit Tracker by 2016; an annual innovation workshop with a goal of 80 per cent of Ontario’s tender fruit production represented.  

Hipple is participating in several research projects, one of which is the installation of field sensors. The idea is to track temperatures from the field  -- by individual skids -- through the packing house right through to the grocery store. Cold chain management is particularly important with tender fruit. If peaches are not cooled properly, the eating experience will be compromised by mealiness. 

Strategic plans need tactical execution.
~ Sarah Marshall

As Hipple explains, there are different picking containers in orchards: baskets, bins, plastic totes.  

“We don’t know yet if slower picking results in better quality or how travel time on packing lines are affecting core temperatures.”  

Jennifer DeEll, fresh market quality program lead, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has been studying the susceptibility of Ontario-grown peach varieties to chilling. Chilling injury, she explains, is 
genetically influenced, triggered by a combination of storage temperature and duration. Symptom intensity and its onset varies with cultivar, cultural practices, fruit maturity at harvest, postharvest handling, growing location and seasons. 

In her 2015 project, 7980 peaches were tested and tasted. Chilling injury developed faster and with higher incidence at 5°C versus 0°C. When background colour was more green than yellow at harvest, fruit would not ripen and soften properly. Fruit from later harvests often tended to be more susceptible to chilling injury. Allstar, Coralstar and Glowingstar peach varieties tend to be prone to bleeding in the flesh from the pit outward.

DeEll is also investigating temperature conditioning where peaches are held at 10°C for two days prior to cold storage at 0°C. First-year results show substantial reduction in chilling injury when fruit was preconditioned. Fruit appeared to maintain similar firmness and other quality attributes as those placed quickly into 0°C. 

This summer, DeEll will continue to rank chilling susceptibility in Ontario peaches and nectarines, including a test at 5°C and using products to control ethylene production.

Vineland’s postharvest specialist Bernard Goyette is tracking factors that affect fruit quality from harvest through retail. Temperature stays fairly constant, he reports, but may rise slightly if the peaches are exposed to direct sunlight before they reach the on-site storage entrance.  Physical attributes of the dumping container affect the peach. A smaller picking container restricts the distance that fruit can fall when tipped. Container size also affects the efficiency of the cooling process. Design of the dumping system and time to process through the packing line is important.

Data to date shows that temperatures rise during transit from 2°C to 4°C. Vibration impact is minimal. In summary, Goyette says the largest vibration impact is from skid movement. Cold chain storage temperatures are difficult to maintain at optimum levels for peaches.

No strategic plan would be complete without thinking about genetic innovation. Faster access to Prunus cultivars under Ontario conditions is needed. Working with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the University of Guelph, the industry looks forward to a new, streamlined process for virus testing and micro-propagation of commercial quantities of fruit trees.

As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results. In the last few years, Ontario’s tender fruit industry has reinvented itself. Dave Lepp, director of operations at Vineland Growers’ Cooperative, observes, “There’s now a future. I see the next generation of young growers making a difference. They’re tech-savvy. They’re keen.”   


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Publish date: 
Tuesday, April 26, 2016

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