Bear Mountain Orchard, one of many family-operated orchards in the fruit belt of Adams County, Pennsylvania, has always worked cooperatively with neighboring orchards to provide a steady supply of fruit to wholesale customers and local processors. So it wasn’t a stretch when Bear Mountain Orchard and nearby Bream Orchard decided to work together to construct a controlled atmosphere (CA) storage facility for fresh apples.

The new CA storage facility in Adams County, Pennsylvania will be used to store apples for both large and small growers in the area.

Growers who pack fresh fruit for market have to keep apples in cold storage to preserve the fruit until it’s time to pack. Sheila Gantz, co-owner of Bear Mountain Orchard, explains the choices. “We use MCP treatment, which blocks ethylene and keeps fruit from ripening, and CA that prolongs the use of the apple so we can pack in spring and still have a good eating apple. Our problem is that we don’t have enough storage space.”

The new CA facility has eight rooms and capacity to store 320,000 bushels of apples.

Another driving force in the decision to construct CA storage is the result of a shift in the industry: more demand for fresh fruit.

“What we sell for processing isn’t enough to keep the fruit growers in business anymore,” said Gantz. “More and more growers are switching to the fresh fruit market hoping to get a higher dollar.” To meet this demand, Bear Mountain is one of many orchards that have added new, high-density plantings that will mature and begin to produce heavily within the next several years. This means that apples must be properly stored for customers who want fruit that’s just as fresh as an apple picked in late September.

CA was first developed in England in the early 1900s, when researchers discovered the benefits of lower oxygen levels for stored fruit. An article in a 1942 botanical gazette includes a description of how apples stored at 2 percent oxygen and 5 percent carbon dioxide were firmer, more crisp and less likely to have a brown core common in apples that have been held in cold storage.

Gantz noted that today, CA storage is common in areas that do a lot of fresh packing, such as Michigan and New York’s Hudson Valley region. However, the Bear Mountain/Bream alliance is unique – it’s the result of two family orchards that needed a solution to the storage problem.

Gantz says that Bear Mountain’s current packinghouse can store 150,000 bushels in cold storage. “We were using seven other locations to store fruit,” she said. “We had to take fruit from the orchard to one of those locations, keep track of the fruit, then bring it back to the packinghouse as needed.” Gantz added that since they didn’t have control of temperatures at off-site storage facilities, ripening accelerated when temperatures rose above the ideal 32 to 33 degrees.

The CA facility is phase one of a four-phase project for Bear Mountain. Over the next two years, the goal is to construct another set of eight CA rooms, a new packinghouse, a secondary line for smaller orders and additional cold storage. “We are only combined with Bream Orchard on the actual storage and plans to pack together,” said Gantz. “We’ll still operate as separate farms and production.”

Gantz says that working with a patient contractor helped immensely. “It was designed with all four phases in mind,” she said. “The hallway is not CA, but can be used as cold storage.”

A video camera trained on various areas of the CA facility monitors essential equipment.

The state-of-the-art building has eight CA rooms with a total 320,000-bushel capacity. An ample parking lot allows tractor trailers to back right up to the dock for delivery and pickup. The entire system is computerized, including cameras that keep tabs on compressors and other vital equipment. When fruit arrives, detailed information – from the grower’s name to room location, row and variety for each lot – is recorded and computerized. A separate room upstairs contains sophisticated equipment including scanners and an ethylene scrubber.

Only two people are authorized to open and close the CA rooms. “First, you should never be by yourself to open a room,” said Gantz. “If you walk into that room and there isn’t enough oxygen, you don’t have oxygen. People need to be trained by the company that installed the CA equipment.”

Space in the CA building isn’t limited to large-scale growers. Smaller orchards that market fruit through farmers’ markets throughout the year can bring smaller lots of apples that need to be stored, and then pick them up for winter and spring markets. Because the rooms in the CA building are not opened regularly, growers will have to plan pickups carefully.

“We told growers that we won’t be opening the rooms until January,” said Gantz. “We can open those rooms, take out some product, then seal it back up again. It takes about 24 to 48 hours to seal the room again; we don’t want to be doing that every week.”

Although there wasn’t any outright opposition to the project, there were no provisions in the township regulations to cover such a structure. “Once people understood what we were trying to do, we had cooperation,” said Gantz. “Everything is set to go into the next phase of building more storage along with the new packinghouse.”

The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania.