Sweltering Alabama summers take a toll on people, animals and even produce, but farmers in northwest Alabama have a new way to beat the heat.
The Northwest Alabama Resource, Conservation and Development (RC&D) Council received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to retrofit cold-storage trailers for farmers’ use during harvest.
Certain produce must be chilled immediately to reduce field heat and maintain maximum freshness, but logistical constraints often prevent this from happening. These trailers are designed as portable, food-grade, cold-storage systems for easy use in the field.
For Winston County’s Charles Brannon, this technology improved his strawberry sales.
“I am thankful to borrow this trailer,” said Brannon, who grows an acre of strawberries and sells at a roadside stand in Addison. “We picked 30-gallons of berries, and we would have lost about half of them due to heat without the cold trailer.”
Before using the trailer, Brannon said the strawberries would spoil within 24 hours of harvest.
The trailer also reduces time Brannon and his family spend picking fruit. Because he can store chilled strawberries, they only harvest every other day and still have fresh produce to sell.
Colbert County High School (CCHS) FFA students, led by instructor Jeff McKinney, were an important part of the project. They added air conditioners and insulation to transform simple cargo trailers into mobile cold-storage units.
“We took a standard box trailer and gutted it down to the frame,” said McKinney, who was instrumental in transforming the original plan from South Carolina University into a working product. “Then we added 4 inches of foam insulation and reinforced fiber board to the sides and installed aluminum tread plates on the floor.”
Standard home air conditioning units were added to each trailer.
“The internal thermostat of the air conditioner normally drops to 61-62 degrees,” said McKinney, who has retrofitted nine trailers with the help of his FFA groups. “Using CoolBot technology, we can actually drop the temperature down into the 30s using a home air conditioner unit.”
Lauranne James, Northwest Alabama RC&D Council executive director, said students also benefit from the project.
“We are not only helping our fruit and vegetable producers,” James said. “This project gives students hands-on experience that will benefit them long after this project is complete.”
Students must pass safety training certification and learn precision measurement; heating, ventilation and air conditioning installation; and metal work. They apply math skills to calculate the trailers' internal volume.
McKinney, a teacher for 19 years, said former students had simpler building projects.
“I couldn’t bring myself to continue building birdhouses with these kids,” McKinney said. “Our technology has grown so far beyond that in agriculture, and now my students can say, ‘Look what we made that will have a lasting impact.’”