Andrea Limehouse is glumly rifling the drooping leaves of locally grown broccoli rabe, boxed and ready to transport from Limehouse Produce's North Charleston warehouse to a restaurant or supermarket. "It's a pity," she says. "It was probably beautiful when it was picked."
No matter how carefully growers tend their crops, vegetables are highly susceptible to heat damage after being picked, a problem that's particularly pronounced in sunny South Carolina. Every summer, Limehouse sees the consequences of small-scale farmers failing to properly cool just-harvested produce.
"We got some broccoli rabe, and it was 70 degrees inside," she recalls. "People don't think about how much heat is in it."
To help area farmers avoid ceding their harvests' value to heat, Lowcountry Local First and the Clemson Sustainable Agriculture Program recently partnered on a post-harvest handling training program at Dirt Works Incubator Farm; the class was one of a series of daylong information sessions for new growers. The program included a field tour, cooling demonstrations and an overview of storage techniques.
While customers generally don't flinch when organic produce is aesthetically flawed - "if it's got a couple of holes in it, that means it's organic, right?" WP Rawl's Matt Warren joked - wilted vegetables are a tough sell.
Warren advised participants to immediately ice their harvests or deposit them in wash tubs, and then hurry them into a cooler as quickly as possible.
"When you pull green onions, don't throw them on the ground and size them that way," he said, alluding to the food safety issues also raised by sloppy post-harvest practices.
According to Geoff Zehnder of Clemson University, an increasing number of small-scale farmers are pursuing wholesale contracts, which potentially offer more income stability than direct sales. "So when you talk about wholesale, quality comes up," he says. "It's a whole other thing you have to learn."
Zehnder says many beginning farmers don't realize they can construct an on-site cooler for the price of a home air-conditioning unit.
"You don't have to spend multiple thousands of dollars," he says. When handled correctly, "it's amazing how much more shelf life you have."