The Orange Test

I think that we sometimes forget that technology is found as equally in shop class as it is in an iPod. Technology doesn’t have to be wi-fi or silicon-based to be exciting or accessible to us. It can run the gamut from space flight to a coiled radiator that runs through the middle of a farm’s 120-degree compost pile to produce hot water for a family, to the blade of grass used by a chimp to drag ants out of an ant hill. I love that the act of developing technology has this element of tinkering and creating associations that didn’t exist before – finding solutions that help get something done. That’s one of the things I enjoy about working with farmers – their livelihood requires them to be natural fix-it people and tinkerers which, for many, makes them technologists.
This recent orange freeze brought out a basic and long-held technology that is being used in the citrus groves of California now to find out how much of the crop has been damaged and how much is salvageable.

Dan Lemley (our buyer on the go) drove out to Porterville, California to visit Julio Cruz at the Cruz’s family farm. Julio had a similar experience with this citrus freeze that Mike Shore in Ojai (who I wrote about last week) had on his farm. Like Mike, Julio’s family rallied together, burned small fires in their orchard, circulated the air to keep their oranges warm and hoped their crop would get through alright. Julio has both navel and Valencia orange trees on his 20-acre property.

After the freeze, the challenge for Julio is how to determine which oranges from the harvest are usable and which are ruined. Citrus growers use a tested method to understand this. Julio and his crew will carefully put the oranges into large vats of water and watch to see which oranges float and which ones sink a bit lower. (Now is the time that you get to guess which one – sinking or floating – means that you have a good orange. I’ll hum some final Jeopardy music while you jot down your answer).

When citrus is damaged by cold, the cells that hold the moisture inside the fruit freeze. (Think how water filled to the top of an ice tray expands the tray when frozen). When water freezes, it crystallizes into a hexagonal form that contains more space than liquid water. In the case of citrus, freezing expands and then bursts the cells. When the freeze is done, the cells are devoid of juice and dried up – these are the oranges that float.

We’ll be receiving the citrus that sinks lower in the water from Julio in the next few weeks as the Cruz family determines what has survived and what was lost. We are hoping that Julio and the other family farmers we work with fared well during this freeze. Enjoy and be fruitful! – Chris Mittelstaedt

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