Friday, September 18, 2015

Following an apple’s journey into the box

Kathy Davis
Communications Office

When you grab that pretty, shiny apple on the store shelf, you may not imagine the journey it’s taken to get there. In the packing house alone, apples travel a path that illustrates modern agricultural practices.

Apples aren’t just a Washington icon, like salmon, coffee and airplanes. They’re also a $2 billion industry producing millions of apples each year. Those apples all need to be harvested, sorted, packed and inspected.  

Last month I got an eye-opening education when I toured apple and potato packing facilities with Ken Tuttle, supervisor of WSDA’s Quincy Fruit and Vegetable Inspection office. As primarily a food consumer who’s relatively new to the agricultural industry, I was struck by the movement of the process.

From the large wooden bins in which the apples arrive in the warehouse, their first step is a bath. Each bin is lifted mechanically onto a skid that lowers it into a pool of water to wash the apples. With nose close, you can smell the chlorine (think swimming pool) that sanitizes.

Drifting and spinning

The water floats the fruit out of their field bins, becoming a river of apples drifting off on their way. They’re dried by spinning on soft, covered rollers and being heated in an enclosed metal container. 

Why are store apples so shiny? Because they’re sprayed with a fine mist of food grade wax.

They roll along, randomly splitting off onto three belts that run past workers who visually check for defective fruit. Along with experienced human eyes, technology helps sort. The apples are also whisked into a computerized machine where a camera and scale determines size and grade.

Placement onto trays and into boxes is largely, but not totally, automated. Humans help make sure each round fruit is properly positioned. Colorful shipping boxes are stacked into tall, wide blocks on pallets. Stacks await shipment to such destinations as Portland, Brooklyn and China.

Storing year-round

Apple harvesting occurs over a relatively short period, yet demand is year-round. So some of the crop is stored in a controlled environment to maintain freshness and allow for later packing.

These rooms look like over-sized racket ball courts with those big wooden bins of apples piled to the ceiling. Along with being chilled, the oxygen level is reduced in the room. Before workers enter, the atmosphere is adjusted to replace life-sustaining oxygen.

These packing facilities are daily working environments for our WSDA fruit and vegetable inspectors. For someone who resides in a cubicle most days, it was an eye-popping new world.