|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
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
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 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.
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
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 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.
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
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 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.