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Fresh technology

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Winning N.C. State Fair applesTerri Leith photoA N.C. State University-developed technology helps apples, such as these N.C.-grown ones, maintain their freshness. Cooperative Extension has trained growers with small operations on how to use the product.

As tourists stop by roadside stands and farmers’ markets to pick up North Carolina apples this fall, many may find that those apples stay firm longer. North Carolina apple growers will be able to market their apples longer with help from a product developed at N.C. State University and the education efforts of N.C. Cooperative Extension professionals.

SmartFresh™, developed by N.C. State researchers, extends the storage life and quality of apples and floral products. Since the product was launched commercially in 2002, SmartFresh has been available only to large-scale producers in other states.

SmartFresh works by restricting the apples’ sensitivity to ethylene, thus helping apples to retain their firmness and acidity. Apples treated with the product not only remain flavorful and crisp but also retain their nutritional value, said Dr. Mike Parker, N.C. State University associate professor and Cooperative Extension tree fruit specialist.

Apples are treated by releasing SmartFresh into an airtight enclosure, where the apples remain for 24 hours. The apples are treated within three to five days of harvest. Once treated with SmartFresh, apples retain their quality, even without refrigeration, research has shown.

Parker explained that immature apples are mostly starch that changes to sugar as apples ripen. SmartFresh helps stabilize the apple, preventing further ripening after treatment.

“This is one of the greatest things to happen to the apple industry in the last 50 years,” Parker said.

Though SmartFresh has been available since 2002, use strategies and techniques had not been developed for smaller apple producers like many North Carolina growers. Parker and Dr. Sylvia Blankenship of N.C. State, a developer of SmartFresh (along with Dr. Edward Sisler of the Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry) and associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, worked with a North Carolina grower to experiment with using SmartFresh to treat apples. The treatment facility was a 48-foot refrigerated trailer where up to 66 bins of apples – approximately 1,000 pound per bin — could be treated at one time. While it was effective, that system was still too large for many small apple growers.

In 2010, Parker and Steve McArtney of N.C. State’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River worked with three growers to treat apples in quantities ranging from two to 10 bins. Results show that SmartFresh resulted in significantly greater apple firmness. In addition, the researchers found a Statesville company – the Blimp Works – that developed a polyurethane chamber that can be made airtight and used to treat two, four, eight or 12 bins of apples.

In tests, the researchers found that SmartFresh worked well for North Carolina. Strategies have been developed for treating between two and 72 bins of apples at one time. The product can be used by even the smallest apple growers selling at farmers’ markets, Parker said.

Allan Henderson, chief executive officer of Henderson’s Best Produce, says his company was the first commercial operation to try SmartFresh about 2000. He had Blimp Works create a customized pod that the company still uses to treat up to 200 bins of apples at one time.

The Henderson County produce company is one of the largest apple growers in North Carolina, with 500 acres of orchards. Allan Henderson considers SmartFresh to be a marketing tool, extending the storage life of apples up to four times. Apples treated with SmartFresh and stored in a “controlled atmosphere” where oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen are carefully regulated stay fresh even longer.

Today, Henderson’s Best treats more than 6,000 bins of apples a season with SmartFresh. “It helps extend our season,” Allen Henderson said. “It increases the quality of the apples, keeping them crisp, firm and flavorful longer. And it helps us economically – we don’t have to rush our fruit to market to sell it quickly before it ripens.”

An example of how the product works can be seen with Ginger Gold, an apple variety grown by Henderson’s Best Produce. With a high sugar content, Ginger Golds have a short shelf life – usually about two weeks – but SmartFresh can extend the shelf up to about six weeks.

To help growers understand how to use SmartFresh on a smaller scale, Cooperative Extension offered a workshop in June at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, not far from the heart of North Carolina’s apple country. About 35 growers attended the workshop.

This year, Cooperative Extension apple experts are supporting growers who want to use this product to improve the shelf life of their apples. In addition, Cooperative Extension has developed a manual that explains the research results and how to utilize SmartFresh on a small scale. The manual, Maximizing your SmartFresh Investment, is currently in review and will be electronically available in the near future.

Using SmartFresh can open new markets to growers. For example, Parker said that a major food processor was interested in buying Ginger Gold apples from a North Carolina grower. The processor needs the apples fresh in September, but Ginger Gold apples are harvested here in August. This year, studies have demonstrated that the quality of this apple variety can be maintained through September – and beyond – with the use of SmartFresh.

“For our growers, it’s a win-win situation,” Parker said.

Natalie Hampton

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