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Southern Valley adds state-of-the-art cooling system, new office

Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable Inc. in Norman Park, GA, has always been innovative. A recent expansion that has added 80,000 square feet of new state-of-the-art cooling space and another 3,000 feet of office space is the latest proof of that.

“Our family has always had the mindset that if you’re not moving forward, you’re going backwards,” said Dug Schwalls. “We’ve got all this expansion going on, we’ve added 80,000 square feet of cooling with state-of-the-art high humidity cooling, hydro cooling for corn, beans and squash, just a lot of new innovative stuff that we’re doing here in terms of being able to get product pulled and be more efficient. We’re hoping by the second or third week of May it will all be up and running; they’re busting as hard as they can.”

Mr. Schwalls said the new cooling system was “the next logical step for us. Nobody’s going to have state-of-the-art cooling like us, nobody can even come close to duplicating what we’re doing. It’s going to make a lot of difference in shelf life of product, it cools it so much faster, it’s a better way. The old forced-air way in theory was a good idea. But really it’s a horrible idea, it dehydrates your product, it’s taking dry air and forcing it through product that’s wet.”

The new method uses a closed system where ammonia cools water. Air blows across the chilled water and cools the product.

“It cools in a lot less time,” Mr. Schwalls said. With the old system, “Cucumbers come in at 80 degrees and take three hours to get cold enough to put on a truck. This way you can drop that to a third or a fourth or even a fifth of the time, so it makes a huge difference.”

This year’s Georgia crop is shaping up terrifically, thanks to a warm winter and spring.

“We’ve had perfect growing conditions coming into the spring, we didn’t have a lot of untimely rain or wind or anything else so it’s been great growing conditions,” Mr. Schwalls said.

While some Georgia growers have crops coming on much earlier than usual, Southern Valley’s “cukes are maybe a few days ahead of schedule, pepper’s a little bit early, but everything else is pretty much on the number,” Mr. Schwalls said.

Earlier in the season, there was concern that Northern growers with earlier crops after a warm spring “were going to be on top of us. But they had blizzard warnings or something in the Northeast, so I guess it’s going to be more typical than everybody thought it was going to be," he said. "It’d be nice to have a Georgia season where the markets were bearable.”