It's July, when farm produce "is harvested in the fields, shrink-wrapped onto a pallet, and then it shows up in the warehouse at temperatures hot enough to cook," complains Haile Johnston, who ships Vineland eggplant, Swedesboro peaches, Hammonton blueberries, Kennett Square mushrooms, and other area farm, dairy, and bean-based products to specialty stores, cafeterias, and 1,600 members of sustainable-
food distributor Delaware Valley Farm Share.
Even when it's a mild 70 degrees out, "it could take three days in our storage to get down to 35," said Johnston, cofounder of nonprofit shipping and warehouse group Common Market Philadelphia.
Johnston has found relief through Global Cooling Inc., a Media-based company run by Jim Still, who has been developing chillers to speed cooling and extend produce shelf life since the 1970s.
New electronic controls and power processors have made the units increasingly portable, and affordable (around $20,000 a unit). Still sold Johnston's group a Jet-Ready PreCooler, which, as Johnston put it, "looks like two large industrial fans bolted to a frame with a control panel."
Connected to Johnston's warehouse cold-storage unit, "we're able to drop the temperature within five hours, in some instances faster. That means product lasts a week longer in the refrigerator," he said.
It seems a paradox, but only this kind of affordable cooling makes it possible for start-up and small-scale Philadelphia-area growers "to match or surpass the quality from large industrial farms in California," Johnston added.
Still fits machines to markets, keeping tons of bananas or cherries from drying out, for example. He sets up wind tunnels to replicate pallet stacks and calibrates new machines in a corner of a five-story-high ship-repair shed, where he rents space from Rhoads Industries, which breaks up old warships at the former Navy Base in South Philadelphia.
Still says he is able to make increasingly portable units that can be set not just in port warehouses, but in shipping containers and in farm storage sites, reducing waste.
"People are running these off generators. You bring the cooling to the product," said Still at his South Philly test site, where he is joined by designer Bret Motter and production supervisor Bryan Irwin.
Still holds a degree in psychology from St. Joseph's University, and describes his work as a mission: "I am creating jobs for Philadelphians, and exporting goods made mainly in Pennsylvania, with all major components made in the U.S.A., and bringing in foreign currency to the U.S.A. in exchange for my products, all self-financed."
Still's business has prospered in Philadelphia, where specialized industry has survived in pockets. The region has remained a major food distribution center, even as suburban development gobbled area farms.
Family-owned businesses - M. Levin bananas, Procacci's Santa Sweet tomatoes, Lucca Freezer and Cold Storage in Vineland, the Port of Wilmington, which handles Chilean winter produce - use Still's machines.
So do flower importers in New York, apple growers in Washington state, and ports on the Gulf Coast. Even some of those California industrial growers.