There’s no doubt that harvesting is one of the most rewarding times on a market farm. You are now reaping the reward of all of the time and effort that went into growing your veggies.
Achieving an efficient harvest is important so that you have the right amount of veggies available for sale at the right time.
The last thing you want is to be harvesting tomatoes when they are too ripe or having too few salad greens available to sell at the farmer’s market.
This is why successfully executing an efficient harvest starts at the planning stages when you plan your field layout.
We will be learning from our friend Pam Dawling, author of Sustainable Market Farming for the valuable information provided in this article.
When you plan out your garden for the season, keep in mind how each crop is harvested and if you can pair them together to make harvesting more efficient.
For example, locate the giant winter squash, pumpkins, and watermelons near a road, or at least a path wide enough for a garden cart, if not a truck.
Plant long rows with access gaps every hundred feet or so to reduce load carrying distance.
Plant tall but closely spaced crops (corn, broccoli) in paired rows so that one person can pick two rows for the same travel distance.
For peppers, beans, and the like, it’s more efficient to pick just one row at a time.
Don’t harvest more than you need, aim to have the right amount coming in each week.
Before you set out to harvest, make a picking list and gather the containers and knives that you will need.
Plan who will pick each crop. It is often more efficient to have regular crew members specialize in certain crops.
However, cross-training is important, so pair an experienced person with a newbie so they can learn as well.
Divide your harvest into categories, for example: daily, three times a week, and twice a week.
How often you harvest each crop depends on its shelf life as well as your markets.
Daily harvests include salads, okra, cucumbers, zucchini, and summer squash.
For every other day crops, Pam uses an organization technique I have not heard of, which is:
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday they harvest crops beginning with a k/c/ g sound.
On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday they harvest b & p crops.
This system ensures that they harvest some cooking greens each day: kale, collards, cabbage some days; broccoli, pak choy, spinach on the other days.
Beans take over from peas as the spring heats up.
Corn gets picked on the days they don’t pick labor-intensive beans.
The twice-a-week crops include some with a reasonable shelf life, like peppers, and those that are at the end of their season when production has dropped off.
At some times of the year, they have once-a-week harvests, such as winter squash in September and October.
Blue flags are used to mark which bed of spinach or kale to pick next. They always pick a whole bed, to save confusion. They move the flag after harvesting in a clockwise rotation around the area of raised beds.
They harvest by leaf and aim to give each bed a week between pickings to regrow.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, and onions mature all at once and are bulk harvested as the major tasks for the day after the regular harvesting is done.
Temperature considerations are a major factor in deciding the order of harvest.
Leafy greens benefit from cooling as soon as possible after picking. Corn and lettuce need to get to the cooler quickly.
Pick before the day heats up, and when the cart or truck has just enough room left so that a trip to the cooler follows loading the most perishable crops.
Other crops including cucurbits (cucumbers, squash, melons), tomatoes, and beans, must wait until any dew has dried from the leaves before working with them, to minimize the spread of disease.
On dewy mornings, Pam often starts with hoeing rather than harvesting.
Avoid harvesting at mid-day during extremely hot periods. Roots and fruits can be harvested in the afternoon and stored overnight for the next day’s sales.
On Pam’s farm, one of their most experienced people acts as a crew honcho. The honcho makes the pick list, matches people with crops to pick, and then tries to ensure a smooth, happy and efficient harvest.
She or he shows the workers good techniques, sets the pace, and creates a pleasant atmosphere.
The honcho keeps an eye on who has picked where, when the cart is full, and if more buckets are needed. They make sure no one leaves tools or buckets of produce behind.
They also make the decisions on whether a plot is worth returning to next time, or if it should get tilled in, and pass this message on to other honchos.
It’s important to get people to start as far from the road as possible, so when their buckets are full they’ll be closer to the road.
When picking long rows, get people to mark the place they started or left from, for example, to take a full bucket to the cart. The sign of the cross beans, which is two beans laid across one another on the ground, is one of the favourites used on Pam’s farm.
If they can’t finish one of the big harvests on a particular day, the next time they start at the opposite end of the patch, hoping they can pick it all, but using a fail-safe system in case it is again too much.
Keep yields up by sowing often enough.
How many times will you pick the same bean plants?
It depends on the cost of labour and how much land you have.
Pick newer plantings before older ones of the same crop to reduce the spread of disease. If you have enough after picking the younger sowing, stop picking the old planting and till it in.
Weed-free rows reduce time spent searching for the crops. Pam encourages fast workers to pull out a few weeds every time they harvest as their hands are right there. Newbies usually get a pass for picking weeds as they just need to concentrate on picking crops and not so much on weeding.
If you find some labor-intensive crops such as beans, beans, tomatoes, herbs are getting away from you, you could consider allowing a U-pick for them or calling in the Society of Saint Andrews or some other charitable organization who would come in and pick to feed the hungry.
Weekly scouting will help you to plan when the harvest of each planting will start and end. Records from previous years can provide expected start and end dates.
Harvesting Tools of the Trade
Customize your buckets, have some with holes drilled in the bottom. Keep the holey ones separate so that you can easily find buckets to hold water or to drain washed produce in as needed.
Some crops do better in shallow or ventilated crates rather than in deep airless buckets.
Pam uses sheets of plastic bubble wrap as cushions in the crates they’re using for slicing tomatoes.
Open-topped backpacks are another idea for a harvest container. They are more ergonomic than carrying a heavy bucket on one side. Broccoli heads can be tossed over the shoulder, which might take a bit of practice to master!
Small tools are easily lost, so find some kind of portable container to take to the field. The universal container, the five-gallon bucket, is often the answer.
On Pam’s farm, they use dishpans for trowels and three-pronged weeding claws and have made a pouch for pruners and the exact number of pockets for the number of pairs, making it less likely they will leave tools behind.
Although special knives can be bought, on Pam’s farm they use mostly knives found at yard sales and thrift stores.
Serrated bread knives are excellent tools for cutting cabbage and kohlrabi. They use pruners to harvest okra, eggplant, and winter squash, and scissors for spinach leaves.
Some kind of barn, packing shed, or staging area makes a useful headquarters for communication, especially if supplied with a chalkboard, whiteboard, bulletin board, and maybe even a stand-up desk.
Harvesting Whole Heads
For leafy greens, Pam utilizes three ways of harvesting: whole heads, leaf by leaf, and “buzz cutting.”
They cut whole heads of mature crops such as cabbage, lettuce, heading oriental greens, and older spinach.
They bend the head to one side, cut through the stem, trim off a few outer leaves if needed, and put the heads in a bucket or crate.
With crops that can get bitter in warm weather such as lettuce and broccoli, harvesters break off a piece and taste test for bitterness, rejecting culls in the field.
In late spring and early summer, they cut celery bunches about an inch above the ground which allows secondary bunches to develop later.
Crops that wilt quickly are set like a bunch of flowers in the bucket initially held on its side making it easy to add an inch of water when the bucket is full. They do this with celery, chard, Russian kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, and also leeks.
For adolescents, lettuce, arugula, and young spinach plants use scissors to cut individual leaves or several layers in one snip. At the same time, snip off old yellowed leaves.
Pam likes to cut the leaf stems near the main stem allowing the new leaves to spread for maximum sunlight and preventing a ‘cage effect’ from near-vertical stalks.
With bigger leaves, such as chard, collards, kale, and adolescent oriental greens, they snap leaves off.
To avoid over picking, harvesters aim to leave at least 60% of the leaf area, or, if it is easier to understand, count the leaves from the centre outward and leave ‘8 for later’ – the 8 youngest leaves in the centre.
A quicker variation on cutting a few leaves at a time is what Pam refers to as buzz cutting, which is giving a plant a crew cut.
When the plants are growing fast or they’re short on time, they do this with mizuna, spinach, lettuce mix, and arugula.
Simply gather the leaves of the plant into a bunch and using scissors or a sharp knife, cut above the growing point, so the plant can continue growing.
Harvesting Roots and Alliums
How you harvest roots and alliums depends on your equipment and the scale of your farm.
For example, with carrots, you can mow or tear off the tops, undercut with machinery, then lift.
Or you can use the tops to help get the carrots out of the ground, as they do on Pam’s farm, loosening them with a digging fork then trim.
When they harvest carrots for immediate use, they snap the tops off right at the junction of the foliage and roots.
When they harvest for storage, they trim with scissors to leave a small length of greens. They do not do bunched carrots on Pam’s farm.
If you do, you’ll know to band them and wash, keeping the greens in good condition.
They plant early scallions in bunches, which makes it quicker for transplanting and easier harvesting: they loosen the soil, pull up the bunches, band them, trim the roots off, trim the tops with scissors, wash, then stand the scallions in small buckets with water.
For tiny roots, like radishes and baby turnips, they harvest directly into a small bucket of water, after trimming tops and tails. This way the roots wash themselves during harvesting and very little cleaning need to happen afterward.
It is important to avoid bruising of alliums and fruits, it may be invisible at the time but cause trouble later. Onions dropped a foot or more suffer interior bruising.
Also, don’t cram too much into one container: this causes bruising too and reduces air circulation.
When picking peas, beans, tomatoes, and peppers, Pam encourages harvesters to use two hands, and use their eyes to look ahead. Because they deliver their peas and beans directly to a kitchen, they trim the pods as they pick.
Once they have gathered a handful of pods they break off the stem and caps before dropping the pods in a bucket.
Meantime, they look back to see if any have been missed. They pick and discard over-mature pods.
They pick cucumbers by hand, encircling the cucumber with their palm and pushing against the stem with the thumb.
This helps reduce scratches, to the cucumber, not the harvester.
For zucchini and summer squash they use knives.
It is a good idea to cushion vulnerable crops, especially if the ride to the packing shed is bumpy.
Pam’s field trimming produces ‘kitchen ready’ crops, saves time later, and reduces the number of times the crop is handled.
This technique won’t work for most growers, but it is an example of tailoring harvesting techniques to fit the uniqueness of the market.
Food Washing and Food Safety Concern
It is important to avoid bacterial contamination.
Wounds and abrasions can lead the crop to pick up a new bacterial infection from the environment. Crops can be punctured by the sharp edges of containers as well as the more obvious knives and fingernails.
At the washing station, crops may be washed by spraying down on a mesh table, or by dunking in troughs and buckets of clean water.
Not all crops require washing: for some such as basil and zucchini, it is a poor idea, as quality suffers.
Straining is important. Some crops can drain on a mesh table or in a holey bucket, suspended with a mesh bag or laundry basket.
You can use a relatively low-tech method of filling a laundry basket with salad crops, hanging it from a tree, and twirling it around to spin out the water. No electricity!
Before, or after, washing comes cooling. Make full use of all possibilities, such as damp burlap, high percentage shade cloth, or the shade of trees, buildings, or a truck.
In the shed, setting buckets or crates of produce on a concrete floor will keep them cooler than on tables, especially if the floor is splashed with water periodically.
Pulling off efficient harvesting techniques takes planning, skill, and time.
Starting your year off organized, with a plan of action, and staying on task will help tremendously in all aspects of your market farm, not just the harvest.
I was pleased to learn that you do not need an official washing station to safely wash your veggies because we don’t have one! We also do not currently have a cooling room either, so we will most likely be utilizing some old-school methods for keeping our veggies fresh!
I will definitely be posting future articles on our progress, so stay tuned!
Do you have any harvesting tips you would like to share? Please leave any and all info in the comments below.
Kathy & Jon
your friendly neighbourhood growers