NINTH IN AN ONGOING SERIES
NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming

Putting your face on
Getting ready for market means "hair, make-up and wardrobe" for your goodies. No matter how sweet your carrots or crisp your lettuce, if they're spattered with grit they won't get a second glance.

By Don DeVault

Editor's NOTE:

In his last two installments, Don got you growing greens like a pro. Check them out:
The A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide Part I and Part 2.

Miss the two artcles on getting your greenhouse up? Visit Hoophouse How-to, Part 1and Part 2 for detailed instructions on assembling 21 by 48 feet of steel and glory.

View a complete listing of all articles in the NUTS, BOLTS & DREAMS series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stay tuned
next time . . .

  • talking the talk
July 11, 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.

Washing

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 much less.

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.

Greens

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 www.johnnyseeds.com 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.

Root crops

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.

Packing

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.

Deliveries

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 bushel sizes.

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.

Note: 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.

Market

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.

Pricing

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 your living?”

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.