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A project of the Fruit and Vegetable Working Group
Developed by Chris Blanchard of Rock Spring Farm, Decorah, Iowa
Funded by the Value Added Agriculture Program and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Photographs by Chris Blanchard and Jerry DeWitt
Getting crops planted and harvested at the right time are important for fruit and vegetable production, but the key to a successful operation is how the crop is handled immediately after harvest. Post-harvest handling is the stage of crop production that includes cooling, cleaning, sorting and packing the crop for later stages in the process such as storage, transportation and delivery to the customer. How a product is handled during this crucial period largely determines its quality and safety for consumption.
A farmer’s primary concerns during post-harvest handling are to quickly reduce the field temperature of the crop to extend shelf life and retain nutrient value; minimize moisture loss and shrinkage; and avoid physical damage such as bruising to delay spoilage. Sanitation is essential in all steps of the process.
The information in this guide came from case studies of three fruit and vegetable operations: Gardens of Eagan, Farmington, Minnesota; Hog’s Back Farm, Arkansaw, Wisconsin; and Spring Hill Community Farm, Prairie Farm, Wisconsin. Post-harvest handling systems used at seven other farms also were summarized and are available on the Post-Harvest Handling Decision Tool website (see pg. 2, Additional Resources).
Since each crop has an ideal range for storage temperature and humidity, the following discussion of handling systems treats each crop separately, isolating the post-harvest handling aspect of the market farm operation. However, post-harvest handling fits into the larger context of a harvest-wash-pack system on a farm, which fits into the still larger context of food safety, markets, labor availability, delivery schedules, and personal and professional goals.
Speed and Capacity - The speed of any function that requires a human operator is very person-dependent. This person-dependency can be mitigated by mechanization, but, in the end, the speed at which the operator feeds in the product and removes the product at the other end ultimately drives the efficiency of an operation. The fastest worker using a manual system will likely get more done than the slowest worker using a mechanized system.
Likewise, not all improvements to post-harvest handling systems make operations go faster on a per-person basis. Some improvements increase the number of people who can engage a job, thereby increasing efficiency by allowing for more product to flow through an existing system, while not increasing per-person capacity.
Product Form and Function - When making choices about adding new products to a system with any degree of mechanization, a producer should consider how well the form of the product will fit with the machinery and tools already present, in addition to the market that exists. A grower utilizing a barrel washer to wash carrots may find increased efficiencies when she adds bulk beets, but bunched beets would require an entirely new system of handling.
Evaluating Costs - The costs presented throughout this document are based on delivered cost—but the prices quoted by a dealer or paid at auction only represent the cost of getting the equipment into your farmyard on a pallet. Assembling machinery and installing it in your packing facility almost always takes a significant amount of time and expense. Producers should take into account the time and money it might take to put a new tool into service in their operation.
This decision tool was developed by Chris Blanchard of Rock Spring Farm in Decorah, Iowa. The tool is a project of the Fruit and Vegetable Working Group affilated with the Value Chain Partnerships program. This project was funded by the Iowa State University Extension Value Added Agriculture program and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Blanchard conducted case studies of three vegetable operations to gather information for this decision tool. Products referred to in this tool are not an endorsement by Iowa State University.
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