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Mobile Freezers Helping Farmers Preserve Crops

Quick-freeze trailer in Vermont among the first in the nation designed to process and freeze vegetables at the farm, providing produce to customers throughout the year.

CRAFTSBURY, Vt. (AP) -- Pete Johnson, owner of Pete's Greens, already extends his vegetable farm's summer bounty by using cold storage.

He will soon be able to offer customers some of his harvest throughout the year, thanks to a new Vermont Agency of Agriculture mobile freezing unit.

"It brings some access to people that normally wouldn't have it. It gives them another marketing opportunity," said Kevin Schooley, executive director of the North American Strawberry Growers Association

The individual quick-freeze equipment, a technology called IQF, is hitting Vermont fields this summer. It can quick-freeze produce and berries at a rate of 600 pounds a minute.

Vermont and other states already have or are planning mobile processing units for meat and poultry. But the quick-freeze trailer is among the first in the nation designed to process and freeze vegetables right at the farm, officials said.

"From the point of view of a berry grower, this is a great idea," said Debby Wechsler, executive secretary of the North American Bramble Growers Association. "There's a real need for processing facilities."

Raspberries, for example, are so perishable that they need to be dealt as soon as they ripen.

"If you don't have some kind of way to use the surplus, you're just going to feed it to the pigs," she said. "It (the freezing unit) really helps the finances of the growers, it prevents the waste."

The technology isn't new, buy the mobility is, said Brian Norder, project director of the Vermont Food Venture center, who designed the rolling freezer.

"The piece of equipment was designed to meet the state's unique desire to see this sort of on-farm processing happening," he said.

Built at a cost of $40,000, with funding from a and the Vermont Department of Tourism, its use will be free -- for now -- as the state Agency of Agriculture tests it. Next spring, a private operator is expected to take over, but it's unknown how much the service will cost then.

One strawberry producer has already signed up to use it next spring.

"I think once this thing starts being used, people are going to be looking for it," Johnson said.

Johnson, who sells organic vegetables to stores, restaurants and individual consumers, isn't sure what he will freeze. Perhaps squash puree or soups.

He's about to transform a tractor trailer into a freezer where he will have ample room to store frozen food.

Demand for frozen Vermont berries is what led to the idea.

The Vermont Mystic Pie Co. wanted local strawberries and raspberries that held their shape.

"We have plans to expand the Vermont Mystic Pie with other kinds of berries," said founder David Barash. "The constraint was being able to go from harvest to processor with berries from the field."

The company could freeze stronger berries such as blueberries in bulk, but the raspberries and strawberries were often too mushy to work with. Now, they can be individually quick frozen at the farm.

With the freezing unit up and running, Vermont Mystic Pie plans to use 50,000 pounds of berries over the next couple of years, with plans for strawberry rhubarb and raspberry apple pies, Barash said.

"It's great for processors that want to use fresh fruit in a variety of products where it's important that the fruit identity hold firm," he said.

It's also good for farmers who have a glut of product but not enough refrigeration capacity.

"It would be a very difficult thing to start a business in the preservation realm and build all your own infrastructure, so this is really helpful," Johnson said.

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