Innovative Field to Market Processes for Small Produce Farms
I am designing and building a washing system, including machine, to reduce the labor requirements needed to harvest, prep, package, and transport various kinds of fresh produce. This process is based on reusable crates to be used to harvest, wash, dry, cool and transport items for market. A major focus is to reduce handling and other duplicated effort. This season I continued the process of testing the core components of our research project, and completed construction of the washing machine.
The washing unit consists of a large frame with motor, transmission, reduction shaft and lifting arm. The arm is attached to a basket that can be loaded with up to two crates. The basket and crates are plunged up and down in the water tank by the rocking action of the arm. Guide rails in the tank keep the basket located through its motion.
Continued trialing of various crate sizes and configurations allowed me to expand my vision of the washing unit and its ability to handle multiple sizes and quantities of crates. I increased the washer’s original capacity of one small crate to two crates or one jumbo crate. This will allow for faster wash cycles but increases the materials needed for construction.
Grant funds were used to purchase additional materials for construction of the washer. My original plan to have a neighbor friend help with the building process was found to be unworkable. I had thought that I could utilize his welding abilities in the construction of the washer. I discovered the time that I had available to work on the project did not match up with his schedule. I could work late at night after completing field work but found he was not usually able to work at those late and un-scheduled times. To facilitate keeping the project moving I redesigned the washer, utilizing materials that I could work with at my farm with the skills, tools and time periods that I had available to me. Several hours were spent in the construction of the washer.
As part of our outreach I also used funds to pay for time spent on collecting photos and creating a PowerPoint presentation of our grant project that is now viewable on our website. A version of that presentation was presented at the National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference, Farmers Forum in Columbia, Missouri in November 2007.
To date we have spent 100% of funds that we have received as well as a percentage of those yet to be received. Yet to be purchased are materials to complete construction of the dryer unit and new crates to replace the used ones that we have been running our trials with.
a) Crate selection is a key element in the process.
b) Using the same crate for picking, transporting, washing, and spin drying is a great time saver, however not all produce will work best in the same type of crate.
c) Using a dedicated transport cart that maximizes the number of crates that can be moved from field to packing area adds to our efficiency
d) Some crops may need to be sorted more in the field at harvest time than they were prior to the use of this crate-based system.
e) In an extremely wet season the crate-based system could cut wash time by nearly 90% when used to clean potatoes
f) The process may reduce the opportunities to check for things like splits, requiring a different focus on final quality
g) The wash process can handle multiple crates of different crops nearly as easily as handling multiple crates of one single crop.
h) The wash system works well with green beans, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, pie pumpkins. Root crops require additional trials to find what methods will work best.
i) It was important to me in the concept of this project to reduce labor needs, which would allow for a single operator to accomplish more by doing multiple tasks — this is being realized.
j) After completing the washer unit construction I discovered that a simplified vision could be possible. The motor and transmission could be eliminated and the rocker arm modified allowing for the use of manual labor to run the washer. This seems counter to my original idea of reducing the need for extra labor, but the modifications to allow for manual operation would multiply the strength of a smaller worker to lift and plunge heavier loads. This concept would allow younger family members to be part of the washing process.
k) Time requirements for everything planned in the proposal can be difficult to meet. You have to manage the need to continue with your farm duties as well as with working on the project.
l) Very important to think about the logistics of doing what has to be done to complete the project. In my case I planned on the combined work of myself and an outside source. I learned that it was very hard to find time that was workable for both of us.
m) My original plan to build and test this system was contingent on getting my cooler and packing work area completed. I was planning on building a new cooler and work area prior to receiving the grant and counted on getting those items done and having them available when I started the grant project. It took me longer than I originally had hoped to get those farm projects completed and those delays caused me to struggle with implementing the new system. I learned from this poor planning, and would advise anyone applying for a grant project for their farm to be sure they can have things, needed to facilitate the project but not part of the project, completed and available prior to embarking on the project itself.
n) When you hit a road block or difficult period you should stop and look at the purpose of the project and what it will improve for your farm. This will help to refocus and rethink what needs to be done and how to restart.
o) When and if you have a problem with your project seek advice from someone at SARE, they are there to help. I was stressed about how I would get the project completed in time and be able to host a demonstration day so late in the season, as a result of contacting SARE I received a much needed extension.
* Test the completed washer
* Construct the drying unit
* Make adjustments to the washer and drier as needed
* Refine the process for each crop type
* Record labor times for each crop type
* Trial selling from the crates utilizing the display skirts we have designed
* Update the website with a final PowerPoint presentation showing the completion of the project
* Hold an early summer demonstration day
* Complete the final report as required
* I presented at the Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, MO in November for Joan Benjamin of the NCR-SARE. There were about 60 farmers in attendance at my presentation. I gave information on my project, telling about what it was and where I was in the project. I also tried to convey to the attendees that if they wanted to apply for a grant that they should be sure of the true need for a project as well as the importance of understanding what it would take for them to complete the project.
* I participated in an agriculture extension video conference for Purdue University regarding grant applications and projects. This video conference was viewed at several Extension offices in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. The goal of this conference was to help inform other farmers about what it was like to apply for a SARE grant and what my specific project was about.
* My wife and I will update our website with a final
PowerPoint presentation at the completion of this season. I have received requests for additional information from farmers who have found our site and viewed the information covering the past two seasons of this project.
* We will host an on-farm demo day in 2008. I want to have this early enough in the season to be able to demo several crops yet late enough so we can have the best information to share.