Mid-August brings a funny blend of changes here at the Whole Foods Market national produce buying office. The breakneck pace of early summer long haul shipping slows somewhat as local production peaks and the whole country seems to go on vacation. The early summer harvest fruits like apricots have faded and the end of mid-season fruits like cherries and blueberries are on the horizon. While the season for some summer fruits and vegetables stretch into the fall, we reach a point where every produce buyer knows there are fewer harvest days ahead than behind us.
Added to that, getting produce to market isn't easy this time of year - no matter what you are shipping or how far (even locally grown produce has to be brought market in good shape to be sold). Higher field temperatures mean shorter harvest periods during the day and warmer product in the packing sheds. To remove this field heat from produce, already overtaxed coolers must work harder - often holding up the loading of trucks for whole days or longer. Once on the road, truck refrigerators also work harder to maintain optimal temperatures on our asphalt and concrete roadways where surface temperatures can routinely reach 135°F. And at the stores, maintaining the cold chain becomes a challenge as store coolers work harder to compensate for warmer external temperatures. All this is happening at a time when fruit is coming out of the fields riper and far more susceptible to extreme temperature change than at any other time of the year.
When you take all of the challenges into account, it makes late summer produce treats all the more special - like the last few jewels on the crown of Mother Nature's most prolific season.
One of the most anticipated late-summer fruits is the fig. An extremely prolific plant species but one of the most difficult fruits to ship even at the best of times. Late August brings the peak season and the most common varieties are the Black Mission, Brown Turkey and Green Kadota. There is also sporadic availability in the Adriatic - a green variety with an intensely sweet, bright red interior. The fig tree is a hardy plant, able to grow in a wide range of climates. But the fruit of a fig tree is a soft, fickle offspring to the parent. Figs are extremely sensitive to moisture exposure in transit so maintaining a consistent temperature is critical to preventing moisture from condensing on the fruit. Getting figs to market has its rewards though - there are few fruits that are better in the late summer.
Too cold can also be as dangerous as not cold enough for some fruits. Tomatoes shipped below 48°F will lose flavor and texture and most tropical fruits will discolor if held in cold temperatures for a sustained period of time. Transportation teams must also master the art of load compatibility - matching up enough warm temperature items to fill a truck. This is particularly challenging with another late season product jewel: the organic Keitt mango from California. Grown in the desert of southern California, the Keitt is a large green variety that is among only a handful of mangos grown in the U.S. Slightly soft when ripe, the Keitt is very sweet and far less stringy than most mango varieties.
Growing districts change frequently as production moves north to escape the worst of the heat. This also makes it harder for carriers to match up compatible loads and insure trucks are in position for the next focus items of summer. But our ten-person team of transportation specialists here at Whole Foods Produce manages to roll with the changes and continues to put wheels under the produce we sell.
So if you find yourself on a highway this summer, remember that you are surrounded by the giant trucks, smaller bobtails and little pickups that work long and hard to deliver our food. For me, there is a special appreciation I have for these transportation giants who deliver my dog day jewels.