Innovative Field to Market Processes for Small Produce Farms

Project Overview

FNC05-568
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2005: $5,901.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Farm Business Management: economic/marketing

    Summary:

    OBJECTIVES
    To design and build a washing system, including machine, to reduce the labor needed to harvest, prep, package, and transport various kinds of fresh produce. The process is based on reusable crates to be used to harvest, wash, dry, cool, and transport items for market.

    PROJECT BACKGROUND Cooley Family Farm is a small family-owned Direct Market Produce Farm. My wife and I started our farm in 2001. I started direct market farming full time in 2004. We have 6 acres of our own with 3 1/2 acres of that in production. Currently we also rent 8 acres giving us nearly 12 acres available for production.

    Our farming methods have always been organic in nature and currently we are working toward certification. We use only non-treated seed and like to use open-pollinated varieties including several heirlooms, and never GE or GMO seed. We never use synthetic herbicides or pesticides and do not use synthetic fertilizers. We do use cover crops, our own compost, natural rock-based soil amendments, beneficial insects and extensive rotation. Crops include: several lettuce and salad greens, beets, carrots, turnips, radishes, several types of potatoes, sweet corn, melons, numerous varieties of tomatoes, beans, peas, herbs, bunching and storage onions, summer and winter squash, pumpkins, chard, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb and grapes.

    We sell our produce at local farmers’ markets, on the farm, through our CSA called the Harvest Basket and through our on-line store via our website. To help us sell direct to our customers year round we utilize four high tunnels and numerous low tunnels. Multiple marketing days coupled with a diverse product list resulted in harvesting many items in small batches. Large-scale vegetable washing equipment and packing lines just did not fit our operation’s size and also were cost prohibitive.

    GOALS
    1) To reduce the handling of our produce between field and the customer.
    2) Save time cleaning field dirt from produce as we prepare it for market.
    3) Reduce labor needs for harvest to market preparations.
    4) Create low-tech produce cleaning equipment for small produce farms.
    5) Create post-harvest processes that help increase productivity and profitability.
    6) Reduce water usage.

    PROCESS The first step of our project was to take what I had as a mental image and draw up some simple plans and sketches. I made an outline of what needed to be done, from getting crates to building the equipment. I made a simple timeline, planning to use the first season to work out the basic processes and design, gather equipment and then build the washer over the winter. The second year was planned for trialing the washer and to collect data on how the system worked. Next I started to bring it to reality. My thoughts were to use a crate to harvest produce and be able to wash the produce in that same crate. To get started, I collected different sizes and styles of plastic reusable crates. These crates had different sizes and configurations of holes. I wanted the crate to hold the produce as well as allow water through to wash off the dirt. The washing action was to be done by repeatedly plunging the produce-filled crates in and out of water. After gathering up the trial crates, we experimented by hand plunging crates, filled with different kinds of produce, into a container of water.

    Very early in the trials I realized that there were several forces of physics that I had not considered. My original design did not allow for a large enough water tank. This was discovered during early manual trials when most of the water was being pushed out of the tank and produce was not being cleaned. By doing the early trials and simulating what we hope to do with the proposed equipment, we discovered that changes in the washer design would be necessary. By increasing the size of the wash tank we were able to continue with trials to find the best types of crates. By plunging the crates manually we were able to work on the harvesting processes and crate styles without having the washer completed. This allowed us to still perform our farm tasks and gather information on how the washer would need to be constructed. Next we started collecting supplies for construction of the washer.

    Originally the plan was to build the main structure from steel. Since I did not have a welder at the time, I had asked and planned on a friend to help with the construction. What I did not plan on was how hard it would be to get the two of us together to work on building the washer. The first winter slipped away with little progress made on the washer. When spring came, I needed to work on the farm during daylight hours and I wanted to work on building the washer late at night or on rainy days. That type of schedule did not fit the times available for my friend. After several weeks of slow progress, mounting frustration, and feelings of having taken on too much extra work, I made a change to my plan. I decided to change the material for the washers’ structure from steel to wood. This would allow me to work on the structure in my 100-year-old barn, when I had time, and no matter what time of day or night it was. Originally I had envisioned the washer as looking factory built; this new plan allowed me to focus on the washer as being more of a prototype rather than a final production model. With this change made, I was able to move ahead with new hope of completing the project. I was able to complete the washer by late in the season of our second year.

    It had taken to the end of the second year’s growing season what I had thought I would have completed earlier that spring. With the washer up and running late in the produce season, I found myself lacking all the different types of produce to test and trial it with. At that point I applied for and received a one-year extension.

    As a result of this project we were able to reduce the time and labor needed to get our produce from the field to our customers. Picking into crates and then washing the field dirt from the produce while it is still in the crates saves so many steps. With the produce being washed in the crate we do not need to dump it out on a wash grate and then roll it around while we spray it off, and then load it back into a container. We have greatly reduced the amount of time that a spray hose is running while we prepare for markets; that saves 1.9 gallons of water per minute of wash time.

    PEOPLE
    Ralph Harshbarger, a retired local farmer, assisted with making some parts as well as helped to locate items needed to construct the washer.

    RESULTS
    See Attachments: Vegetable Washer Plans [Editor’s Note: Contact NCR-SARE for copies of (A) Manual Wash vs. Crate System Sheet, (B) Crate-Based System Notes, and (C) Crop Evaluation Sheet or if you need a hard copy of the plans for the vegetable washer at: ncrsare@umn.edu or 1-800-529-1342.] The results are better than we expected. Not only does it take less time to wash pounds of produce, it also frees up the person running the washer to do other tasks. On numerous occasions the washer would be running, cleaning muddy produce, while we were in the field picking. We were able to do multiple tasks at one time. By leaving the produce in the same crate it had been harvested into, we reduced the time need to transfer the produce as well as the clutter and expense of different boxes and baskets. Another benefit is that the crates are all plastic, meaning that they can be reused over and over again and can easily be sanitized. This eliminated cardboard boxes and wooden baskets. As an example, previously we would soak muddy potatoes then spread them out on a wire mesh and spray them off while rolling them back and forth so we could get the dirt from all around them. This took a significant amount of time and would result in potatoes with missing or tattered skin. After the potatoes were spray washed they would need to be left on the wire mesh to dry. After drying, the potatoes would be put into a box for transporting to market and possibly put into yet a different display container once there. When using the crate-based system, we harvest the potatoes into a crate, set the crate of potatoes on the washer, strap down the crate, turn on the washer and walk away. The washer can run as long as needed to clean the mud from the potatoes. After they are finished washing, the crate can be dipped in clean water as a final rinse and set aside to dry. An additional benefit is that the potatoes almost look polished when they are dry – no torn skins. Now the crate can be transported to market and once there it can be set right on the sales table. The dry potatoes almost shine while on display; the light tumbling action gives them a polished – not tattered – appearance. Numerous handling actions as well as the time used to spray wash were eliminated. When the same process is used with something like beet roots, the same savings can be realized plus the beets can be stored in a cooler between harvesting and market while still in the crate. We did find that for soft crops like broccoli, cauliflower and greens utilizing the crates for harvesting, storage, transportation and sales was an improvement over previous methods, however washing those crops while in the crates was not beneficial. For some soft crops the wash action may be too harsh and other crops like broccoli can collect debris from the wash action. The crate system was also found to be beneficial for dry storage crops like shallots, garlic, sweet potatoes, and onions. These crops could be harvested in the crates and stay in the crates until sold; they just do not go through the wash process. It is important for anyone planning on using this wash process to understand that it is intended for the removal of excess field dirt only and is not intended as the final wash. All produce must be washed properly by the customer before it is consumed.

    DISCUSSION
    Not only did I learn that we could reduce the time and effort needed to get our produce from field to market, but I also learned that one idea can be developed into many more opportunities for improvement. When we switched to the crate system of harvesting and washing we were able to make improvements all along the path from the field to market. The transport cart reduces trips to the field and gives us a standardized size for stacking and storage. We also have seen that we can add things like harvesting tools and tie wraps to a storage box on the cart and improve even further.

    With produce coming out of the wash area in a standard-size crate we have been able to make improvements in our storage and cooling areas. We can add shelves that complement the crates and increase our storage capacity. This past season we saw how much difference the crates were making on the farm side and invested in an enclosed market trailer then equipped it with shelves to hold the crates. With crates of produce on shelves in the trailer we were able to handle a much larger volume of sales at market than in previous years and on most days sold more with less labor. This coming spring, we will utilize the washer for hydro-cooling asparagus that will be picked right into crates in the field. The possibilities for improvement are numerous. I fully expect to continue to find more ways to reduce our field to market labor needs from knowledge gained while working on this project.

    Advantages of implementing our project are the changes we have made; these changes will improve our ability to continue our farming efforts, grow our operation and increase our economic strength. From the project we gained processes that help daily on the farm. We also made numerous contacts with other farmers and educators over the past three years that we would not have made if it were not for this project. There were disadvantages also but those were mostly self-inflicted. There were so many things that had to be done before and during the project that were integral to the project but not part of the project itself. These things made it so much harder to keep on schedule, and they put a greater burden on our time. As an example, we have only a turn-of-the-century barn that houses all of our equipment and anything else we can fit into it. Just allocating space for working on the project was difficult. While writing the proposal I thought about what needed to be done during the course of the project but did not think in enough detail about how and where everything was going to get done within the confines of the space I had available. Because of this I had to take on the extra work of cleaning out and repairing parts of the barn just to make room for me to work on the project while continuing my daily farming functions.

    When asked by other farmers what I would recommend about their own ideas for grant projects, I ask them to think through the whole project from start to finish. I suggest that they visualize how they will accomplish each step while thinking through the complete project. They should ask themselves if there is anything extra that they will need to accomplish that is not covered by the funds of the grant in order to complete each step. I also ask if they have everything to complete each step such as tools, skills, or money. If they will need to do something on their farm before they can complete a part of the project they must understand how they will do that. A project plan that is very detailed on what action needs to be done and includes everything that has to take place to support those actions is very important. In regards to others that have reviewed our project and want to apply it to their operation, I have pointed out that it is not necessary for them to implement everything that I did to start benefiting from our techniques. I explain to them that it is possible to just start using the crates for harvesting and displaying without everything in between. It is also possible to implement a manual wash station using crates as we did in our early trials without building the washer. Both of these methods can help some farmers reduce their harvest to market costs and later if they want, they can build the washer and put it into their modified system. It is not necessary to implement all parts of our project to benefit; it’s possible to implement it in pieces over time, and make modifications to it that best fit their individual needs.

    Some things to consider when implementing our crate-based system are how you will offer your produce for sale; will you display and sell in bulk or will you pre-weigh or group it. If selling items like carrots and radishes or other root corps that you may bundle with the tops on, you can pull the plants and place root down in the crate with the tops up. This method may prevent stacking of the crates while in transit from the field to the wash area depending on if the tops are taller than the crates. After washing, the produce may need to be removed from the crate to pre-weigh and bundle or it can be left in the crate if weighing and bundling are done at the point of sale. Another option is to remove the tops in the field leaving them to rebuild your soil. This method reduces the amount of crates and space needed. After being washed the produce can be pre-weighed and bundled or left to be done later. The type of crate used has a great impact on the results that will be achieved. As part of this project we trialed several different crates. All of the crates in our trails were made of plastic; we wanted to have crates that could be easily cleaned and reused. Plastic crates are preferred over cardboard boxes and wooden baskets when looking at ways to reduce contamination. We found that there were several things to consider when selecting a crate. The overall size is important for fitting in with all the processes. The crate must work well in the field, fit into the field transport cart or wagon without wasting space and be stackable or be easily stacked with minimal effort. Another option for a crate is for it to “nest” with others when empty. The hole size and configuration is very important. If the holes are too small or too few, there may not be enough water entering the crate as it is submerged in the wash tank. If the holes are configured mostly on the sides and not on the bottom, there can be too great of a resistance built up as the crate is lowered into the water, causing a greater load on the washer’s drive parts and excessive water displacement in the tank. We found that for our needs the best crates were almost mesh like with a lot of holes or slots on all sides as well as the bottom. The mesh style crates give great water and air flow without allowing even the smallest of produce to slip from the crate. A universal top was made for using on the crates while in the washer. The crate top was made from hardware cloth that was cut to the length of the crate and about four inches wider than the crate. This mesh top could easily be places on the crates and held down with elastic straps. Our final crate selection was a plastic shopping style basket with integral fold down plastic handles, much like the shopping basket you find at your local supermarket. We also found that by adding weight to the washing machine’s action arm we could smooth out the pumping motion. The weight could be added twenty pounds at a time and used to act as a counter weight on the end opposite the basket of produce. We used one, two or three weights depending on the size and weight of the basket(s) of produce being washed. During our demonstration day, a gentleman suggested that we make a notched receiver for the weight to hang on, which would allow us to move the weight further from the pivot point increasing its effect and allowing us to use only one movable weight. This suggestion will be incorporated into the washer for the 2009 season. Another discovery was that we could accomplish sufficient drying of produce without the need for a centrifugal drier. We originally planned to wash greens in the crates but found that the washing action was too harsh on them; greens were our primary concern for needing the drier. After crates of produce were washed and rinsed we could set them aside on a rack to air dry. Produce going to the cooler benefited from a minimal amount of residual moisture. If additional drying was needed for items like potatoes, we accomplished that by using a fan to increase air movement.

    By washing the produce in the poly tank, we can collect the sediment and add it back to our soil. The tank has a drain hose attached two inches about the bottom of the tank. After washing produce, the tank of water is left for a short time to allow organic matter to settle to the bottom. After solids have settled to the bottom, the water is drained from the side drain and can be used for drip irrigation. The solids are then drained through the bottom two inch drain and collected in a settling pool where any remaining water can be allowed to evaporate. After evaporation the solids can be collected for composting. With the water and solids drained from the wash tank, it can easily be cleaned and sanitized between wash cycles.

    How the crates, washer and processes fit into a farm’s system should be evaluated by looking at each type of produce being grown. Key points to consider are how each item is being sold including weight, volume, and where applicable, with or without tops. After looking at each type of produce grown you can see where our system will fit into the existing system and what changes could be made.

    The cost of the project ran approximately 22% over what I had planned for in the budget, resulting in more expenses for the farm than was planned. The extra expense was for supplies to build the washer and for labor for building the washer and doing trials. I had included a small amount in the budget for travel to a local small farming conference, however that schedule was changed and we did not attend. Those unused travel funds were added to the supplies line of the budget as more was spent on supplies than was budgeted.

    OUTREACH
    We presented our project activities and results at the Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, Missouri in November 2006, November 2007 and November 2008. I believe that over 300 people at those three conferences watched our PowerPoint presentations which included numerous photos and videos. It was noted that our presentation was the best attended for the 2008 Farmers Forum. For the past three years all three of these Farmers’ Forum presentations have been posted on our Cooley Family Farm website, allowing numerous people to view the presentation from their own computers.

    In September 2007 and September 2008, I talked about our SARE grant project and my experiences with the grant at video grant writing workshops hosted by Purdue University and the University of Illinois. A total of over 150 people heard about our grant project and several asked specific questions regarding our project. During the 2009 Video workshop a woman in Illinois told everyone watching how she had discovered information about our SARE grant project on our web site. She explained how she found the site while doing a web search. She also explained how she implemented part of our crate system. It was very rewarding to be sitting in Indiana listening to a grower in Illinois who found our project online and was benefiting from our research.

    In 2007 and 2008, I participated in the NAN (New Agriculture Network) a cooperative effort between organic and sustainable growers along with Purdue University, Michigan State University and the University of Illinois. Over the course of the past two seasons, I informed approximately forty other farmers about our project, and let them know they could review pictures and information about this project on our website.

    In April of 2008 we hosted a farm tour for 17 farmers and educators who were involved with NAN. I showed them our washer and discussed how our crate-based system could benefit other farmers they may know. On April 17, 2008 we hosted a Small Farms Sustainability Tour for Purdue University. Over 60 farmers, educators, and business people form Indiana and Illinois attended this tour. Several of the farmers on this tour were not familiar with SARE grants and had several questions about the process. We were informed that our tour was one of the best attended tours for the 2008 season.

    In September 2008 we hosted a bus tour for Michigan State University. This tour was suggested as a direct result of our NAN tour in April. This bus tour consisted of over 60 people, mostly Michigan farmers and some educators. A number of the farmers were just getting started in small farm enterprises. We demonstrated the washer and crate system, and several attending commented on how they felt they could implement some part of what they saw while at our farm.

    In September of 2008, we held our annual Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) get together and demonstrated our grant project to over 60 people. Many of our CSA customers purchase produce from other farmers in the area and we felt that they too could pass the word along about our grant to other farmers they knew. I explained how farmers and ranchers were doing research on many other topics, and encouraged them to learn more about SARE and sustainable agriculture. In September 2008 we held an on-farm demonstration day. We chose Monday, September 18th because it fit our busy schedule. We used a direct mailer to invite farmers to our demonstration day, sending out 120 personal invitations. We also invited several Indiana county extension educators and asked them to pass the word to farmers who they felt would be interested. We also extended an invitation to the Sustainable Earth Organization president and asked him to pass an invitation along to others he felt would be interested. To our surprise even with all these efforts we had only three people attend the demonstration day. Although it was a small turnout, we felt it was a success. We demonstrated the whole process including picking, transporting from the field, washing, transporting to market, and display techniques. One gentleman made a suggestion on how we could modify the balance weight on the washer to make it more flexible and easier to adjust. This modification will be made to the washer before we start our next season. A month later, a farmer who was invited to attend the demonstration day but who could not attend because of his schedule, dropped by for a look at the washer. I gladly gave him a personal demonstration of how it worked. He took several photos of the machine. He commented on how he thought the washer would help his CSA with their harvesting activities.

    In reviewing the demonstration day results we concluded that there were several changes that we would suggest.
    1. We would schedule the demonstration day to be held after the end of the main season when farmers’ work loads are reduced.
    2. We used a direct mailer because it allowed us more time to select a date and more flexibility for us. A better method may have been to select a date well in advance so notification could be given through trade magazines and group communication channels.
    3. Because the demonstration day was held during our farmers’ market season, we chose a Monday. Feedback from farmers that would have like to attend but could not, told us that Monday was not a good day. Sunday was suggested as a better day for attending a demonstration during the market season.

    In November of 2008, I gave a presentation to the local Master Gardeners Organization. During that presentation I showed pictures of our grant project and explained the benefits of participating in the SARE grant process.

    “Small Farm Today” magazine ran an article about our grant project titled “Field–to-Market Methods” in the 2008 May/June issue. The “Vegetable Growers News” magazine ran an article about our grant project titled “Grower finds simpler way to wash, transport produce.” This article was in the Organic Section of the January 2009 issue.

    I volunteered to present a PowerPoint presentation at the 2009 Sustainable Earth, Food, Farm and Energy Gathering in Indianapolis. I will include information regarding our grant project in that presentation. We placed a video of our washer on “You Tube”. In just a short period of time we received an e-mail from a farmer in Iowa who wanted more information on our project as well as the grant process in general. He was very interested in getting more details on the design of the washer because he thought it would be usable on his farm. He also was working on an idea of his own for which he was considering submitting a SARE grant proposal, and wanted contact with someone who had participated in the SARE process.

    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.