Dan MacLean, global innovation research and development director for –Pennsylvania-based AgroFresh, stands in front of the new office and lab the company recently opened in north Fresno. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
Growing oranges, grapes, peaches or any other crop isn’t just a matter of putting seeds in the ground and watching plants grow.
Beyond the work, water and other resources that go into successfully raising crops, an enormous amount of science goes into ensuring fruits and vegetable grow to marketable sizes, avoid diseases, fend off invasive insects and survive rough weather conditions, to name a few.
But once crops are harvested, packed and sent off to market, the need for science to protect them doesn’t end. A company called AgroFresh has come to Fresno to help with that.
“It’s a post-harvest-focused company focused on the quality of fruits and vegetables and some ornamentals from the point of harvesting to the time it makes it to retailers,” said Dan MacLean, global innovation research and development director for AgroFresh, which in April leased office space at 4140 N. Brawley Ave., turning 5,600 square feet into a lab and office space where field representatives and researchers study local crops and develop ways to better get them to market fresh and extend their shelf lives.
When successfully done, packers, shippers and grocers have less wasted food that has to be thrown away due to mold, rot, etc., while the fruit and vegetables consumers buy stays fresh a day or few days longer, MacLean explained.
There are a lot of factors working to damage those commodities, from natural deterioration to the effects of weather to exposure to fungi.
“When you pick a product — a fruit or vegetable — it’s got a finite lifespan. It’s not going to last forever,” MacLean said. “We have a challenge to cool it and get it to the market — from here to Sacramento, or if it is from here to Philadelphia, or if it’s is from here to China — so it doesn’t show up brown or mushy or fuzzy.”
As for solutions, they can range from applying waxes and other coatings to gaseous treatment to using antimicrobials to designing or chemically coating packaging that can slow the deterioration process or protect the commodities from fungi.
Such solutions aren’t one size fits all, said MacLean, noting that a solution to extend the freshness of blueberries probably will not work for lettuce. Geography may also affect potential solutions, even on the same crops, so treatments for oranges grown here may not work for oranges from dryer or more humid parts of the country.
So AgroFresh, which began operations here about three weeks ago with a limited staff, is working directly with client growers, packers, shippers and retailers to research the longevity issues affecting their specific crops, developing solutions and selling them to the clients.
“We can tailor those technologies to the unique needs of the customers,” MacLean noted.
“The core of our business and what we were founded on is an ethylene management tool,” he said, explaining that ethylene is a hormone-based gas naturally produced by plants that ripens them but also adds to their rate of decay.
“And we have a technology that controls that rate of ripening and greatly controls the shelf life,” he added.
Solutions include a gas to which harvested fruits and vegetables are exposed to, and another using chemical box coatings to counter the ethylene.
The Philadelphia-area company started about two decades ago and has grown to include three U.S. research-and-development facilitates in Fresno; Yakima, Washington; and Springhouse, Pennsylvania, along with additional ones in Spain, Italy, Chile and Australia. AgroFresh also contracts with labs in other parts of the world.
Since its start, AgroFresh also has increased the scope of its work, expanding beyond ethylene to address other issues affecting freshness and longevity.
MacLean said all of AgroFresh’s facilities are located in agricultural regions, which is why the company opened one here.
And while it isn’t fully staffed yet, the plan is to have enough researchers and field representatives that all of California’s farming regions can be served.
“We want to be able to connect with them, understand their needs in the post-harvest quality challenges, and we can draw on our portfolio of solutions and make recommendations,” MacLean said.
AgroFresh had operated a lab in Davis but decided to relocate it to Fresno.
Its central location in the state was a big part of the reason.
“It’s really in the heart of all of the production. You know, within two to three hours you can get to everything from avocados to stone fruit and berries and cold crops on the coast,” MacLean said.
“It was important at this time in our company’s growth to be closer to the industry.”