2003: From careful pre-season seed selection to planting,
irrigation and cultivation, you’ve invested a good deal
of time and money in whatever crop it is you’re ready
to harvest. And now it’s time to get paid. Time to get
that precious time back, fold it in half, stick it in your pocket
and walk away whistling a carefree tune.
So how do you do it?
I know I’ve told you that quality organic produce sells
itself. And it does. Based primarily on appearance, or freshness,
and taste. But since slugs, voles, rabbits, groundhogs and
deer aren’t much in the way of paying customers, marketing
remains your department. Naturally, you’ve got to put
your product out there, or bring the customer in.
But that’s not it. Marketing begins before you start
barking through a bullhorn. Think of the supermodel on the
cover of a magazine. Yes, she may be beautiful, and if she’s
showing skin it’ll definitely sell more magazines. But
I bet she didn’t roll out of bed looking like that.
She had someone to do her hair and make-up. Someone to pick
out what she’d barely wear. Someone to adjust the lights,
block a shot and airbrush any imperfections still perceptible.
Your vegetables have only you. And you have only a garden
hose and a critical eye. It’s a little more honest,
and takes a lot less money.
Most of what comes out of the ground will need to be cleaned
up at least a little bit, as paying customers are generally
more discriminating than the aforementioned, freeloading slimy
or four-legged agricultural enthusiasts.
Also, depending on where you’re planning to let your
vegetables sell themselves, you’ll have to bunch, bag,
or box them accordingly.
Then, if you have time, you can jump in the shower yourself.
(If it’s been more than a week, MAKE time.)
I’ll get to “talking the talk” next time.
Today it’s hair, make-up, and wardrobe.
It wasn’t until this spring, after nearly 20 years
in operation, that we finally got around to building a proper
wash station here at Pheasant Hill Farm. It’s a simple
slant-roof pole-building 12’x10’, and it took
three days from start to finish. Total cost was about $500.
Using recycled materials, you could build the same thing for
In previous years our clean-up efforts and energy had been
scattered around the farm under shade trees and canopies.
Centralizing our washing/packing under one corrugated green
plastic roof has greatly increased our level of organization
and has allowed us to focus our energy and get everything
done more quickly and efficiently.
Organizing a post-production system is an easy thing to let
slide behind soil preparation, planting, cultivation, and
harvest. Post-production is an afterthought. Or all-together
forgotten. But every season’s natural and necessary
expansion brings increasingly more work in the fields, more
worries and concerns, which means less time and energy to
waste on disorganization in any aspect of the operation. Precisely
why I feel it imperative that you begin with at least a solid
concept of how to go about processing your harvest.
Everyone will ask if your greens are washed. And I always
tell them, yes, but I also recommend, as with all fresh produce,
that you wash it again. My purpose in “washing”
delicate baby greens is primarily to chill them, to return
to the stressed cells of a harvested leaf the turgidity that
lends a fresh appearance, crisp texture and longer shelf-life.
It’s as almost a secondary function of this very natural
preservative process that I “wash” away dirt,
grit, flea beetles, aphids, flies, lady bugs, and slugs.
I use plain old well-water (which runs cold and is tested
every year for any contaminants) to wash my greens in a large
stainless-steel sink (24- X 46- X 16-inch). Actually, it’s
a bulk materials bin that dad bought at auction when Walnut
Acres closed down in Pennsylvania in 2001. Works just fine
as a sink.
It follows that you don’t want to soak the greens so
much as shock them back into shape, chill them down quickly
with just a little gentle agitation to loosen any foreign
particles and uninvited guests. Too much handling and you’ll
damage leaves, and damaged leaves won’t keep. Neither
will excessively wet leaves, so after a quick dip, you’ve
got to spin them dry.
In their first season, friends of ours spun their mix overhead
in a large cheesecloth sack. This is not a recommended method.
Your best bet at the beginning is a hand-cranked 5-gallon
salad spinner. (See Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog
or check at local restaurant supply houses.) It works, but
it takes some muscle and time. We got by with one of these
for about five years, but as production increased, and my
mom’s shoulder required surgery, we moved on to a 20-gallon
motor-driven spinner, which makes life much easier. It will,
however, put a dent in the checking account.
Eliot Coleman built his own wooden-slatted hand-cranked spinning
barrel, which serves well his particular production system.
I’ve also heard of people using old, stripped-down washing
machines on the spin cycle with success, but have no experience
with it myself. It always seemed a bit too “ghetto”
to be quite in line with my aesthetic operating principles.
I should note that most of my greens come out the hoophouse,
and are therefore not subjected to heavy rains, which splatter
mud everywhere. I should also note the ever-present exceptions
among the greens to the wash/spin treatment in post-production
are arugula, braising mix, and sometimes spinach.
I cut arugula first thing in the morning, and stack it tightly
and neatly in a Rubbermade tub, give it a quick spritz, put
the lid on the tub, and stick it in the cooler. The leaves
are so tender the wash/spin system bruises and tears them
up. If cut early in the morning, when they still hold the
cool of night, they keep very well like this.
The leaves I harvest for braising mix are generally too large
not to be bruised and broken up in the spinner.
And spinach is a judgment call. Leaves can tear a bit in
the spinner, but if they’re dirty or if I didn’t
get them cut until later in the day and they look a little
stressed, I’ll wash and spin them.
We used to try to soak our root crops clean in large tubs.
Once upon a time we bought a huge barrel washer my dad had
to drive to the middle of nowhere to pick up. What you want,
and all you need, is a hose with a nozzle that delivers an
adjustable-pressure stream and a large, wire mesh-topped table,
ideally divided into two sections for dirty and clean.
With potatoes, especially new potatoes, you want to take
care not to strip off the skin with too much pressure.
I keep the greens on my beets, carrots, radishes, and turnips
as far into the season as I can. Insect damage and time constraints
dictate when I have to abandon the beautiful, leafy bunches.
When I began going door-to-door at restaurants and health
food stores selling salad greens, I carried my product in
tall white garbage bags. The few steady customers I picked
up in that first season happily handed down used waxed produce
boxes from their other suppliers, and gradually my packing
system evolved into something a little more polished.
Fortunately, the health food store stocks only organic produce,
so there was no worry about contaminating my organic produce
by putting in boxes tht held conventional veggies.
With restaurants and health food stores, you’re going
to be dealing in bulk quantities, which is pretty easy. You’ll
need some waxed produce boxes. Here in Pennsylvania we order
from Inland, and use fairly standard 1 1/9 bushel and 1/2
To give you some idea, I get 8 lb. of salad mix in the 1
1/9 bushel box and 3 1/2 lb. in the 1/2 bushel box. They’re
not cheap, so you want to try to hang on to them, and also
pick up as many new, used ones as possible from whatever outlet
you sell to.
You’ll also need some large, food-grade plastic bags
to line your boxes. We deal with a regional supplier.
Everything that spends any
time in a walk-in cooler must be bagged or at least in some
way covered to protected it from moisture-sapping refrigeration.
There’s a bit more involved in market sales, as to
satisfy demand, you need to sell smaller quantities of more
products generally greatly varied in size, shape, and weight.
Presentation is your main concern.
You’ll still need the big boxes and bags to pack things
up and get them to market. But you’ll also need twist
ties, rubber bands, bags of at least a couple different sizes,
baskets and/or display boxes, scales, folding tables, pop-up
canopies, and maybe even a few plastic coolers and ice packs.
Not to mention transportation.
This is where it really pays to have your post-production
act together under one roof. For example, after you wash and
spin your salad mix, you have to bag it up to weight, box
it up, and get it in the cooler. I know it sounds pretty simple,
but if your wash tub’s someplace other than your spinner,
and your bags are someplace else (hopefully close to your
scale), and you can’t remember where you put your boxes
... you’re in trouble, and in another year you’ll
be reading a beginning-computer-programming article.
The best way to make your own luck, as much as one can, is
to set the right price. Visit gourmet grocery stores in your
area and see what they charge for organic produce. Then ask
more. That crap in the grocery store is probably at least
a week old and was almost doubtlessly harvested and packed
by grossly exploited, illegal Mexican laborers slaving away
for some corporate tyrant.
If anyone ever questions your prices, smile kindly, and without
the least bit of malice in your voice, ask them, echoing the
words of our old friend Ward Sinclair, “How do you make
And finally, you’ll have to decide on a price that
justifies the investment of your time, but doesn’t keep
people from buying what’s trying to sell itself to them.