December's traditionally been the month most fresh food (other than root vegetables) came from the southern U.S., or beyond.
For domestic produce, you could count the days until items such as crisp, crunchy apples turned soft, mushy and tasteless.
But that's changed in the past few years, thanks mainly to consumer demands for freshness, and research here into what's called postharvest storage.
At harvest, a crop often needs to be stored before it's sold. And that's a critical period. Scientists have been working with the agri-food sector to modify or control the atmosphere in airtight storage rooms, so harvested fruit and vegetables stay fresher longer.
For example, they've made great strides in reducing oxygen — which naturally speeds up the rotting process — and increasing the carbon dioxide in storage. In fact, they're to the point where Ontario apples –the focus of much of the research, because of their popularity — can be stored fresh for 10 months, almost until the next harvest.
Researchers have even found ways to keep sliced fruit fresh longer. If you visited the Journey to Your Good Health exhibit at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair last month, you may have sampled McDonald's packaged sliced apples.
The slices stay crisp thanks to technology developed by a diverse private- and public sector-team that included personnel from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph.
This team found that utilizing a formulation containing a vitamin C compound called calcium ascorbate on the apples as soon as they're sliced, meant they didn't turn brown. This, along with refrigeration at 0-5 C, kept the slices looking and tasting fresh.
And now, the pursuit of fresh food's taken another step forward.
Last week the University of Guelph opened the doors to its new $1.5-million postharvest research facility. It's widely supported, with financial contributions or staffing from the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the federal government and the Ontario Agricultural College.
At the opening, college dean Rob Gordon called the facility an "innovation hub" because its multiple stakeholders bring so many skills and interests to the table –biochemistry, genetics, engineering and physiology, among them. Gordon noted the postharvest facility will enhance Ontario's fresh food quality and safety. And isn't that what's on everyone's mind?
Like much state-of-the-art scientific equipment, the 22 controlled atmosphere storage chambers in the Guelph facility are understated and nondescript. Some look like giant three-metre high stainless steel boxes, with doors and gauges affixed to their exterior walls, hardly suggesting the biological activity underway inside.
And most of that activity does indeed involve apples, at least right now. Apple growers have been among the first to realize how postharvest storage technology can help them — namely, it can provide a steady, year-round income by allowing their produce to be shipped into the market in an orderly fashion, rather than flooding it and depressing prices.
Other fruit and vegetable growers can also get on-board, says apple grower Harold Schooley, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association research committee. "Many commodity groups have no idea of the possibilities," he said at the Guelph facility's opening.
Indeed, imagine if postharvest storage did for them what it's done for the apple industry.
A few years ago the apple sector was full of doom and gloom, due to cheap imports and low prices. But now, researcher Dr. Jennifer DeEll of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, one of the technology's developers, says new postharvest storage technology and the pursuit and uptake of new varieties — especially Honeycrisp — have turned the sector around.
With the new postharvest facility, researchers will learn even more about preserving fresh food. Farmers, and consumers, are the winners