Innovative Field to Market Processes for Small Produce Farms
Cooley Family Farm is a small family owned Direct Market Produce Farm, started in 2001. 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.
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.
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 operations’ size and also were cost prohibitive.
PROJECT DISCRIPTION AND RESULTS
1) To reduce the handling of our produce between field and customer
2) Save time cleaning field dirt from produce as we prepare 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
I made an outline of what needed to be done, from getting crates to building the equipment along with a time line, 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.
My thoughts were to use a crate to harvest produce as well as to wash the produce in the same crate. I wanted the crate to hold the produce as well as allow water through to wash the dirt off.
Very early in the trials I realized that there were several forces of physics that I had not considered. By doing the early trials and simulating what we hoped 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.
Next we started collecting supplies for construction of the washer, which I determined I would make out of steel. 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. After several weeks of slow progress, mounting frustration, and feelings of too much extra work, I made a change to my plan.
I decided instead of constructing the washer from steel I would use wood. With this change I was able to complete the washer by late in the second year.
With the washer up and running late in the season there was a lack of different types of produce to test and trial with.
I applied and received a one-year extension, giving us a complete season to trial different types of produce and processes.
Ralph Harshbarger, a retired local farmer, assisted with making some parts as well as helped to locate items needed to construct the washer.
We were able to reduce the time and labor needed to get our produce from the field to our customers, also freeing up time to multiple task. We have also 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. By leaving the prooduce in the same crate it had been harvested into, we reduced the time needed to transfer the produce as well as the clutter and expense of different boxes and baskets.
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 to 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; as they do not go through the wash process.
It is important that anyone planning on using this wash process understands that it is intended for the removal of excess field dirt only and not the final wash.
Not only did I learn that we could reduce the time and effort needed to get out produce from field to market but I also learned that one idea can be developed into many more opportunities for improvement. 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 as well as making improvements in our storage and cooling areas. We can add shelves that complement the crates and increase our storage capacity. Because of this 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. The possibilities for improvement are numerous. I fully expect to continue to find more ways to reduce our field to market labor needs form knowledge gained while working on this project.
We have presented our project activities and results at the Small Farm Conference in Columbia, Missouri in 2006, 2007 and 2008. I believe that over 300 people at these three conferences have 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.
Our presentations are posted on our Cooley Family Farm website. I have participated in workshops at Purdue University, University of Illinois and Michigan State University. I participated in NAN (New Agriculture Network) in 2007 and 2008. In 2008 we also hosted a farm tour, hosted a Small Farms Sustainability Tour for Purdue University, a bus tour for Michigan State University, held our annual CSA get together and demonstrated our grant project, held a farm demonstration day and gave a presentation to the local Master Gardeners Organization.
“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” in the Organic Section of the January 2009 issue. Finally, we have placed a video of our washer on “You Tube”. In just a short period of time we received an email from a farmer in Iowa who wanted more information on our project as well as the grant process in general.