When I’m putting together pieces for EatOrToss, I often turn to researchers in a field known as postharvest science. These are the horticulturists, plant pathologists, engineers and others who study our fruits and vegetables, and what it takes to grow, harvest, process and deliver them to us in the best condition possible.
EatOrToss wouldn’t exist without their help, so this summer, I’m thrilled to be taking the Postharvest Technology of Horticultural Crops Short Course at the University of California, Davis. Designed for folks in the produce industry, the class normally meets each summer for an intensive two weeks on campus (and in agricultural fields!), but amid this year’s pandemic, it went virtual and spread the content over seven weekly meetings in June and July.
Even from afar, I’m feeling immersed in strawberry fields, apple orchards and labs where temperature, humidity and ratios of carbon dioxide, oxygen and other gases are carefully studied to find the storage conditions that will maximize the quality and shelf life of our fruits and vegetables. Every week, we’re given several hours of lectures to watch on our own, along with extensive written materials to review. On Wednesdays, I, along with more than 100 fellow students, log in for three hours of live class time, where professors recap highlights from the videos and readings and take questions. Topics have ranged from flavor and aroma biology to packaging. A recent class meeting was dedicated to fruits ranging from cherries to mangos.
On Wednesday evenings, my husband has become accustomed to my excited sharing of whatever I learned that day. Did you know, I ask him, that strawberries are picked and then placed directly in the clamshells we purchased them in? And that bananas get rounder as they mature? And that truck suspensions, something I never would have linked to the freshness of my fruits and vegetables, can make a huge difference in preventing bruising? He’s a good sport and gets excited right along with me.
Doing the class virtually makes it harder to connect with other students, but we’ve had some nice small group discussions and it’s been great to get perspectives literally from around the world. There are folks logging in from Australia, Mali, Chile and India. My classmates work in fields including supply chain management, quality assurance, government and academia. I learned from a participant in Jamaica that green bananas (not just plantains) are used in savory dishes there. And a student in Mexico shared results of an experiment he did on storage conditions of huitlacoche, an edible and highly prized fungus that grows on corn.
After several years of working on EatOrToss, I found that the Postharvest Technology of Horticultural Crops Short Course helped reinforce some of the central themes of postharvest science—like the importance of commodity-specific storage temperatures for keeping produce pristine, the fact that fresh produce is still alive and breathing, even in our fridges, and that many types of produce are “chilling sensitive” and will degrade in strange ways if stored too cold. I’m also developing a better understanding of exactly which plant pathogens are some of the worst offenders (looking at you, gray mold, aka botrytis cinerea) and have gotten a bunch of ideas for fresh posts for EatOrToss.
I have been wanting to travel to California to take this course for years. While part of me is cursing covid-19 for denying me on the on-farm, face-to-face element, the truth is that I wouldn’t have been able to go this summer without the virtual offering and a discounted rate. Perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic is that course participation is easier for many people this year. One day, when coronavirus has less of a grip on our lives, I hope to visit the storied UC Davis campus. But for now, I’m excited for our next session. We’ll be talking about topics ranging from walnut and almond farming to post-harvest diseases and food safety. I have a ton of questions!
This is the first of two dispatches from the 2020 UC Postharvest Technology Center’s Postharvest Technology of Horticultural Crops Virtual Short Course. Many thanks to the center for having me in the course!