Efficient and safe food handling for small scale vegetable farms

Final Report for ONE10-127

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2010: $14,325.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Molly Shaw
CCE Tioga
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Project Information

Summary:

Our project proposed identifying 10 farms to conduct case studies of their harvest wash and pack efficiency as well as their food safety protocols. We had 12 farms that participated in all or parts of our case study. We identified “good” examples and shared their techniques, similarly we identified farms without good set-ups and helped them to update their harvest wash and pack operations. We identified farms that wanted to improve their food safety protocols, some wanted to become GAPs certified and others just wanted to be more aware of how to handle food safely.

Introduction:

This project began with the understanding that harvest wash and pack labor is a large percentage of labor costs for small scale diversified vegetable farms. We wanted to share some best practices for harvest wash and pack operations and help farms improve their efficiency. Simple low cost improvements allow farms to lower their labor expenses as well as time spent harvesting washing and packing. We felt that food safety is related to wash station efficiency. Neat, efficient set-ups are more likely to be food safe. Food safety guidelines (GAPs) are written for large farms, we helped to scale these down, educate farmers and assist them in writing a food safety plan as well as assist with the physical improvements necessary.

Project Objectives:

Proposed: Recruit 10 farms
We worked with 12 farms
Case studied all 12 farms
Redesigned wash stations on 3 farms

Proposed: Assisting 20 farms with writing food safety plans
Assisted 3 farms with writing plans. This was advertised but few farms responded with interest.
Proposed: 1-2 field days on a tour of 3-4 farms
Held 1 field day on 1 farm: Farms were less interested in GAPs than in harvest efficiency, we felt that there would not be enough turnout for a full day event.
Proposed: 1-2 farmer meetings

We presented videos and discussion at two farmer meetings, videos were also shown at the NOFA conference.
Proposed: conducting labor time trials on case study farms
We had difficulty getting farms to fill out papers and return them to us for evaluation, 3 farms did return their paperwork. Instead, we used more anecdotal observations about efficient harvest and washing systems, and highlighted these in our articles and videos.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Matthew LeRoux
  • Monika Roth
  • Eric Yetter

Research

Materials and methods:

We spent 2-3 days on each case study farm. We had two individuals go, one was able to work and assist with harvesting, another was able to shoot video of harvest wash and pack practices. We went back to farms to be sure that we were able to capture crops from different seasons. Farms were very willing to work with us, farms that wanted to improve were engaged in learning what other farms were doing and others that had a good setup wanted to see how they could improves and wanted to share ideas with other farms. Farms that wanted to sell to wholesalers were motivated to become GAPs certified to be able to do so. There was interest in food safety but not much in certification unless they needed it for a market.

Research results and discussion:

The video component of the project was added after our initial submission to SARE. This changed our project immensely, we spent much more time shooting and editing film than we had anticipated. This was a learning process and subsequent projects with video components will benefit from this. See our notes on video best practices attached.

There was much less interest in GAPs certification than we anticipated, this was counteracted with sufficient interest in the efficiency component of the project. Several farms were interested in the science of food safety and how they can make their product safer as opposed to GAPs guidelines which did not always follow the scientific logic. As stated earlier we advertised our willingness to assist folks with writing food safety plans and we had only three farms take us up on this offer.

After studying the participating farms, we highlighted components of a farm system that affect overall harvest and washing efficiency, as well as tips for each category of crop we studied. Full recommendations are in the newsletter articles (publication section), but an outline is provided here.

GAPs Demystified
Good agricultural practices or GAPs certification is third-party food safety audit for farms. At this time (2011), GAPs certification is buyer-driven, asked for by some wholesale buyers wanting to reduce their food borne illness liability rather than being a government requirement for all farms. A farm can get certified for single crops (GAPs certified for lettuce, for instance), or as a whole farm.
Different certifiers can write and certify their own standards, but since the USDA GAPs audit is what we have experience with locally, the remainder of this article pertains specifically to USDA GAPs.
GAP’s focuses on the main three sources of possible food borne illness on produce: workers with inadequate personal hygiene, contaminated water used in irrigation or washing, and contamination by animal feces (wild or domestic).

The other major focus of GAPs is establishing procedures to deal with problems if they arise, such as the ability to trace back product at the point of sale to the farm and field where it was grown, and a written farm protocol to deal with a crisis such as a chemical spill or a food borne illness outbreak. All farm policies are outlined in a written farm food safety plan, with various record sheets to show that the farm is following the procedure outlined in the plan.
Auditors use a checklist to determine how well policies and procedures are written and followed. Inspections happen annually, during harvest. The farm must pass each section (called a “scope”) with a grade of 80 percent. The checklists aren’t secret, you can see the exact rubric you’ll be graded on at www.ams.usda.gov/gapghp. The easiest way to write a food safety plan that will pass the audit is to write it based directly answering the questions on the grading sheet.
Most of the small scale vegetable farms we surveyed could pass a GAPs audit with only minor changes in their practices and a lot of additional documentation. The biggest area for improvement seems to be in the farm bathroom facilities, which is a big focus of the GAPs program. Even an outhouse could pass the USDA GAPs audit if it was maintained clean and had a container of water set up to supply running hand-washing water with soap and single use towels.

Organizing the Farm for Efficiency

During our case studies we visited farms during the growing season and observed harvest and washing practices. While this snapshot view is valuable, it misses a whole big aspect of farm efficiency—the business decisions and planning. In the winter we followed up with farmers to learn about what they consider to be the biggest factors in farm efficiency.

Crop Quality: Again and again, we heard that having a high quality crop in the field is the biggest factor in efficient harvests. Any time the crew has to make a decision about whether a vegetable is up to snuff or not, the harvesting process is slowed down. Related to having a high quality crop is the ability to do clear-cut harvests, where the crew harvests every plant in the plot, or every leaf on the plant. Again, reducing the decision-making requirement for harvesters makes harvest faster.

Market destination: The market the vegetables are destined for also dictates the level of sorting and packing needed. The way many farms run CSAs makes for less harvest labor because members pack and sort their own shares out of bulk bins. Wholesale customers usually require a higher level of uniformity in vegetable size, requiring more sorting at the farm level than retail customers.

Labor management: Not surprisingly, farm workers and how they are managed are central to labor efficiency. Farmers stressed the importance of being organized with harvest plans and directions ahead of the crew’s appearance. This means the farmer has taken time to scout the field and prepare a harvest list before the harvest day, and that harvesting supplies are clean and easy to find.

Leadership: Many farms also designate crew leaders, who are paid a little extra to take responsibility for keeping the crew moving and productive in the field. Always having someone with the authority to answer questions and make decisions with the crew saves a lot of head-scratching time. In addition, minimizing the transition time between tasks is important—when a worker finishes one task, they should know their next job without having to waste time looking for the boss. Farmers emphasized that labor efficiency doesn’t come from working faster, it comes from working smarter by thoughtfully reducing repetitive movements, use of tools and well-thought-out procedures.

Instructions to the crew about harvesting techniques and quality control should be clear and easy to follow. When a new worker starts, take time to teach them the technique you have found to be the most efficient. Farmers with good crews are not shy about making corrections and helping employees understand that their contribution to the farm team is important for the overall farm success.

Farmers have also found that workers have a relatively short attention span for tedious tasks (1 hour, in one farmer’s opinion). In the end it’s more efficient to send a large crew out to do an unpleasant job so that it gets done quickly than to send one or two workers out where they languish for hours on their own.

Experienced workers: Since training workers takes time, efficiency improves when workers stay for the whole growing season and return from season to season. Some methods farms use to encourage workers to return are listed in the full article.

Tracking labor cost: Several farms in our study compare harvest labor across crops by calculating the sales value that can be harvested per minute. This objective record-keeping helps farms improve or drop labor-hogging crops.

Using volunteer labor: Some farms (such as CSA farms) have volunteer labor at their disposal. CSA members commonly help with washing crops once they are harvested. Another common practice is to offer particularly labor-intensive crops such as strawberries, peas, cherry tomatoes and flowers as you-pick to CSA members. Don’t expect volunteers to be as efficient as professional farm labor.

Field lay-out: When planning the field and bed lay-out, think about that transition time. It’s useful to plant crops close together that have similar harvest dates. Not only does it facilitate field preparations and cover-cropping plans, it also makes for less on-farm travel time when harvesting.

Favorite equipment: Good cultivating equipment came out on top of the “favorites list” for many farms, even when talking about harvest labor efficiency, because weed-free fields are so much faster to harvest. Flame weeding to make stale seed beds for crops like carrots and baby greens was mentioned as a key practice on some farms.

In the wash station, having a simple conveyor table to help tumble spray-washed roots was an inexpensive addition that was well worth the investment. An undercutter bar and a barrel washer were key investments for root crop harvests.

Farmers say that traveling to conferences and visiting other farms, particularly in different regions of the country, give them labor-savings ideas that they can adapt for their own farm.

Harvest Containers

The containers used to hold harvested crops certainly affect the efficiency of the harvest. Most farms agree that it’s best to have uniform containers because organization is simplified, and containers that nest one inside another are favored because they take less storage space. When utility, price and longevity are considered, there isn’t one single container that is best for every farm or crop, and farms can be quite creative with the containers they use to hold harvested crops.

What follows is simply a “show and tell” of containers we saw used on vegetable farms this summer, with a brief listing of their pros and cons.

Repurposed containers:
5 gallon buckets, ~1/2 bushel, $5
Sometimes available for free
Handles allow lifting of loads without excessive stooping
Durable
No lids (usually)
No drainage holes
Nesting

Laundry baskets, ~ 2 bushel, “hip hugger design”, $12
Possible to carry against the hip with one hand
Durable
No lid
Side vents, but no bottom drain holes
Nesting

Home storage boxes, ~1.5 bushel, $10-12
Durability varies by brand; some can be brittle. “Roughneck” is reported to be among the most rugged
Has lid
Stacking (with lid)/nesting
No vents or drainage

55 gallon food grade barrel, cut in half with handles attached, ~3 bushels, $5-10 + labor
Durable
No lid
No vents or drainage
Nesting
Labor required to cut barrels and add handles
Rounded bottom easy to drag in field as you harvest

Produce Harvest containers:
Grape (fruit) lugs, ~1 bushel; $13, Belle Terre Produce
Very durable, polyethylene
Available with or without ventilation holes
No lid
Nesting/stacking

Apple picking bag/bucket, ¾-1 bushel (straps onto body); $32-80,
Leaves both hands free for harvesting
Transfers weight to shoulders when standing
Bottom opens to gently dump produce

General purpose 1.75 bushel rectangular plastic container; $15 Nolts Produce Supply
Very durable, polyethylene
Vented bottoms and sides
No lid
Nesting/stacking

Attached lid plastic shipping container (~1 bushel); $12-15 Global Industries
Very durable, polyethylene
Lids attached
Nesting/stacking
No ventilation/drainage holes
Available in different colors

Fruit/veg crates, ~1 bushel (also available with shorter sides); $10 Belle Terre Produce
(Also known as bulb shipping crates)
Polyethylene, but not as durable as other containers, 25 lb limit
Lids available, $2.50 extra
Stacking, but not nesting
Vented bottoms and sides

Different containers end up being ideal for different farms. Consider the following when making your choice:
• Many farms use the same type of container for harvest as they do for storage and transportation to markets.
• Often having drainage holes in a storage bin is important to get rid of excess wash water, where drainage in a harvest container isn’t as critical.
• Having a lid when harvesting and storing tender crops like greens can help prevent them from drying out.
• Consider the container size, especially when harvesting heavy crops like carrots and cucumbers. Sometimes smaller is better.
• Sometimes farmers can find repurposed containers locally for cheap or free

Note: Brands and suppliers are listed as examples only. Cornell Cooperative Extension doesn’t endorse one brand or supplier over another.

Set up an efficient vegetable wash station

Efficient washing/packing houses aren’t just for big growers; they’re critical for small scale diversified operations as well. In a diversified vegetable farm, it’s not unusual to spend 50% or more of your farm’s labor on harvest, washing and packing produce, so it stands to reason that efficiencies here make a big difference to the bottom line.

The produce washing/packing set-up is the hub of a farm’s harvesting activities. Each farm’s wash station is customized to their own crop mix, style, and resources, but there are several similar components of an efficient set-up.

Covered from the elements—you’ll be washing and packing in every possible weather condition, from 100 degree heat to 35 degree windy rain. Having a shelter while washing and packing is important not only for produce quality, but also for worker efficiency and satisfaction. Various inexpensive options are given in the full article.

One-direction flow—Have you ever designed a new kitchen for your house? A wash station for your farm should be as carefully thought out as your $12,000 kitchen renovation, and with a similar logic. Your wash station, like a kitchen, should have work “zones” for washing in tubs, washing on a spray table, packing product that doesn’t need washing, and moving produce to the cooler. Additional “zones” are added for specialized washing equipment, like a barrel washer. Often the product flows in one direction—dirties in one end, cleans out the other, with dirty harvest lugs following their own path to cleanliness. Imagine how a head of lettuce (for example) would move through your station and make adjustments to avoid extra and retraced steps. Building flexibility into your wash station is also helpful, as some pieces of equipment are primarily used for short periods of time.

Comfortable working heights– Kitchen counters are set at 30 inches as a comfortable working height for the average person. If you’re stretching to reach your arms over the edge of your wash tub or stooping to rinse your taters, adjust your table height. Many stations have benches that are lower than the washing surface, just at the right height to set a full harvest lug so the top of the lug is even with the top of the wash tub, minimizing bending and lifting.

Water sources and drains—All water used in washing vegetables should be potable, and lots of water is going to run into and out of your wash station. Think about how to make it drain away so you aren’t sloshing around in mud.

Small vegetable farms tend to rely heavily on hoses with spray tables and dunk tanks for washing produce, while more specialized equipment is added over time. Ideally your wash tubs will have bottom drains to empty them. Many growers find it useful to hang water supply hoses and/or to have hooks for hose ends so they aren’t dragging heavy hoses over the ground and dropping nozzles in the dirt. A float valve on a wash tub can help save time; other duties can be done while it is filling without risk of overflowing (figure 6).

Organization– Marking full containers so you know what is in the container how much of the product, the date, and for what market can reduce time when looking for the products in the cooler. The best farms have a system worked out so they can quickly locate product in the cooler and get it on its way to the correct market.

Most farms know that better record-keeping would help their business, but it’s hard to make time for even simple notes. Placing harvest and market record sheets in the wash station can make the difference between keeping records and not getting around to it.

All too often farms don’t feel like they have time and money to set up a really good wash station. But remember that the components of a good wash station need not be expensive, and consider that the typical mix fresh vegetable farm spends 50% or more of their labor on harvesting and washing. The reality is that farms can’t afford NOT to pay attention to their wash station set-up.

Harvesting Greens

Farms sell greens as heads, loose as salad mixes, and as bunches. Greens tend to be one of the more perishable crops on a mixed vegetable farm, and the care they receive in harvesting and washing affects their shelf life. Greens are often eaten raw, and the past food-borne illness outbreaks associated with them merit special attention in their handling.

Quality of crop dictates harvest time: The biggest factor affecting the efficiency of harvest is the quality of the crop in the field. When the crop has imperfections that need to be picked through in the field (and/or later in the wash station), it slows down the harvest. In fact, any time a worker needs to make quality decisions during harvest rather than harvesting complete plants or beds, that decision-making process eats up time. An efficient harvest starts way back with field preparations—preventing or keeping weeds under control (often with a stale seed bed), adequate soil fertility, low insect and disease damage, and a good thick stand of plants. A long rotation and adequate cover crops go a long way to accomplishing this.

Cutting baby salad greens: Greens are one of the first crops cut on harvest day, while temperatures are still cool and leaves well hydrated. Salad greens are typically cut with long, well-sharpened knives, dragging a harvest bin along next to the harvester, the bin on the opposite side of the body as the knife. Wide beds are harvested from both sides, or kneeling on the bed itself. Mid-sized farms sometimes use a “basket harvester” for baby salad greens. This harvester has a 48” saw blade held horizontally over the bed. As greens are cut, they fall into a bag attached to the blade (see figure 1).

Cutting heads: The most efficient farms will have one person selecting and cutting lettuce heads, as they are able to make quick authoritative decisions on size and quality. This quick worker sets the pace for those that follow to trim of wilted or damaged leaves and pick up the heads—jobs that take much less decision-making.
Bunching greens: The fastest harvests of kale, chard, etc, are the ones where the decisions are minimized—where all the good full-sized leaves are quickly stripped, yellowed bottom leaves are pushed to the ground, and there isn’t disease or insect damage to pick through.

Washing greens: Always use potable water to wash produce. Farms usually sell salad mix as rinsed, but with the suggestion that the customer wash it before eating.
Most small scale farms opt for dunk tubs for washing greens. Greens species or components are combined in the water where they can be gently mixed without bruising. Multiple rinses also serve as a chance to remove weeds and bad leaves. Greens are moved from bin to bin with pool skimmers or fish nets (dedicated to the wash stand, of course). The more water drains from the scoop of greens before going to the next cleanest bin, the better. See full article for commentary on dunk tanks.
More on drying and packaging greens in full article.

Harvesting and Washing Root Crops

The root crop harvesting and washing process changes depending on whether roots are sold fresh with green tops or as the roots alone. In addition, some root crops are harvested throughout the season for weekly markets; others are harvested at the end of the season as storage crops. Root crops are dirty and heavy, so harvest practices focus efficient ways to remove lots of soil and move heavy loads.
Bunched root crops: For crops that are sold in bunches with the greens still attached like radishes, salad turnips, beets, etc, most farmers find it more efficient to harvest the roots loose, then bunch and wash them on a spray table. It’s easier to make bunches with uniformly sized roots with the whole harvest arrayed on a table at a comfortable working height than searching through the field to create uniform bunches during the harvest stage. Some farms use a dunk tank to wash roots, but this generally takes longer.

It’s more efficient to harvest a whole bed of roots than to pick through looking for the biggest ones. Even seed spacing and/or good thinning can create faster harvest conditions because roots are more uniformly sized. Some farms decide that the uniformity in bunches isn’t important for their market, or that their customers appreciate being able to choose between variable sized roots. CSAs are particularly forgiving in this manner.

Root crops without tops: Most small scale farmers either fork roots by hand or use an undercutter bar to loosen roots before pulling them by hand. Some farms have had success using a subsoiler or single shank pulled between crop rows to loosen the roots before pulling, less expensive but less ideal than an undercutter bar.

Forking roots is the way most small-scale farms start. It’s more efficient to have one worker loosen a whole bed with a fork and have other workers follow behind to pull roots rather than continually switching tasks.

Transporting to the wash station: Root crops are heavy, and picking/transport containers should reflect this. Harvest may be done into smaller bins or buckets, or in partially-filled bins. Various transportation schemes are mentioned in the full article on root crops.
Washing roots without tops: Many farms still use a spray table for washing topped roots. A step up from a stationary table is a table with a moving top, called a “belt conveyor” in the packing house equipment world. One step up from spray tables is a barrel washer. It’s a wonderful piece of equipment, among the favorites of farmers who have them. Farmers say they can wash 1000 lbs of carrots/hour with one person using the barrel washer, while 150 lbs/hour is a reasonable rate to expect washing carrots on a spray table.

Research conclusions:

The farms we worked with were able to improve their harvest wash and pack practices to become more efficient and food safe. This project will also allow many farms to access this information through videos posted online at CCE small farms and beginning farmer websites.

Immediately: By viewing videos at farmer-to-farmer meetings, growers got ideas that they could apply to their own farms.
Long-term: Farms will have the opportunity to access this information online and watch videos that will help them with crop specific and farm wide efficiency.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

We have a series of articles that will be distributed in several publications:
Southern Tier Produce News (distributed locally to 200 southern tier produce growers)
Cornell Vegetable Team newsletter
Capital District Vegetable Team newsletter
A series of 8 videos are posted on you tube, SCNYAGTeam channel. Links are listed below in attached file.

Videos and information was shared at two farmer meetings with attendance of 60 and 100 individuals. The videos were shown at the NOFA forum.

Our Farm field day was attended by 17 individuals, it was well received and farms appreciated having an official from NYS ag and markets to answer questions. All participants were sent an invitation to view our video series.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

We did not collect any hard numbers related to the financial analysis of farms. We have made a connection to efficiency by reducing labor expenses and time spent harvesting washing and packing. We did provide participating farms some small items to increase wash station cleanliness and efficiency, such as long-handled scrub brushes, spray nozzles, and quick-connect hose connectors.

Farmer Adoption

Farms adopted suggestions for improved efficiency. They were interested in improving flow and organization. Adoption is largely unknown as many farms will have the opportunity to access videos in the future online.

After making changes to a wash station several farms made additional changes after using them several times. We understood that there would be many ways to make small improvements in efficiency even after we assessed a wash station.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

We felt that food safety protocols (GAPs) could use further scientific research. Specifically the scientific threshold of cleanliness (dirtiness?) for dunk tank washing.

We also feel that more professionally-produced videos on harvesting and washing practices would be useful. We had a learning curve when producing videos for this project. If we were doing it again, we’d capture some different footage and follow the video best practices tips.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.