Harvest is the reward for months of hard work. But all that hard work can be wasted if a farmer doesn't have a customized harvest plan to maximize the quality and marketability of their produce.
Direct-market farmers need to develop a "best practices" harvest plan for each crop and then use that information to develop a plan for the entire farm on harvest day.
When working on your harvest plans, keep in mind these six harvest tips.
Harvest Market Crops at the Right Size to Sell
Some crops, such as radishes or English shelling peas, become over-mature and inedible if they are allowed to get too big and go past their harvest peak. On the other hand, some crops only reach peak flavor when they are mature – such as sugar snap peas. Other crops can capture more market value (and sell much faster) if they are picked when they are small versus big. Think zucchini!
Uniformity of size is also essential if you are selling wholesale to chefs or grocery stores. For example, a chef doesn't want a bunch of salad turnips with one giant turnip and four tiny turnips. Instead, they need the turnips sized uniformly.
Pick Vegetables and Fruits at the Right Time of Day
In the height of the summer, the best time of the day for harvest for crops (and humans) is early, before it's too hot. But, for a busy market farmer with many diverse crops to harvest, knowing which absolutely must be picked while it's cooler outside versus those that can tolerate warmer harvest times is essential for organizing an efficient harvest day.
Anything "green" (salad greens or braising greens like kale) should be picked during the coolest part of the day and immediately removed from the field. Root vegetables, like potatoes and carrots, tolerate a hot picking day as long as they aren't left in the field too long. Some 'fruiting vegetables' like tomatoes or cucumbers (and melons and cantaloupes) are best picked when it is still early and relatively cool, but after the morning dew has burned off.
Heading brassicas, like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, can be picked in the evening when temperatures go down, as long as you immediately remove the day's field heat (more about that below).
Taking the Field Heat Out of Harvested Crops
The next step to maximize your harvested crops' quality and storability is removing the "field heat" from the crop.
Removing field heat is a critical step for vegetables that are already prone to wilting in hot weather (like salad greens or braising greens) and can also extend root crops' storage life such as carrots. Produce should be cooled before being sent to the cooler. Otherwise, it takes too long for the cool air to bring the temperature of the crop down, plus it makes the cooling unit work that much harder!
Many farmers remove the field heat as part of the washing process, dumping a bin of freshly cut salad mix into a tank of cool wash water. Or, they spray off bunched crops to keep them humid, cool and get them clean at the same time. On scorching days, consider ice in the dunk tank or pouring ice on top of a bin of harvest, such as broccoli or head lettuce, put into a cooler (some farms invest in an ice machine for this purpose specifically!)
Handle Your Crop Gently and as Little as Possible
"Soft hands" are essential for your harvest team to develop. Overzealous rough handling can bruise tender crops, damaging leaves and making them go bad in storage.
Set up picking procedures for each crop. The harvest crew should always follow the same methods, employing the least amount of handling possible, whether that's how they stack the zucchini in the field bin or using a mesh bag to dunk salad greens into a washtub.
Setting up methods to handle your crops as little as possible has an added benefit – it saves labor time.
Select the Right Package or Storage Container for Your Crop
It is essential to think about what to store your crops in after they are harvested.
Some items may be packaged directly into market retail units — such as individual bags of salad greens. But, if storing in bulk, salad greens should be kept in plastic bags to keep humidity up. Likewise, root crops, especially if harvested in bulk for later sales, are best kept in open slatted bins, typically unwashed, to prevent mold and mildew.
Also, consider space. Good storage bins which can stack, properly filled, maximize cooler space.
Store Your Harvest at the Right Temperature and Humidity
A big challenge for storing vegetables and fruits for market farmers with many crops is that the perfect temperature (and humidity) can vary markedly from one crop to another.
A 36-degree cooler might be perfect for broccoli but too chilly for head lettuce. Some crops do best at room temperatures, like cured onions and garlic, winter squash and tomatoes. Most small farmers with a diverse crop mix should plan to have at least a cold storage room and warm (room temperature) storage. Consider more than one cooler. They can be set at slightly different temperatures and humidity levels and filled with appropriate crops.
You've Perfected Your Market Crop Harvest — But You're Not Done Yet!
A well-thought-out harvest plan is a big part of a successful farm. But you're not entirely done yet!
Make sure to be aware of food safety hazards and follow all food safety rules. Consider how you will transport your crop to market (or for deliveries). Do you have a refrigerated vehicle (or something you can adapt into a refrigerated vehicle?). And then, of course, there is your marketing plan for selling all those beautiful vegetables and fruits!
There's a lot to think about for a successful farm business. But, hopefully, with these tips you'll be well on your way to a profitable harvest!
For more details on harvest procedures, including a crop-type breakdown, check out this great "Harvesting Crops for Market" guide produced by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.
Georgie Smith, known in her community as “Farmer Georgie,” is a fourth-generation farmer and journalist living on her family’s historic farm on a Pacific Northwest island. She ran her own small farm for more than 20 years. These days, when she’s not herding chickens, fixing the antique tractor (again) or growing heirloom dry beans, Georgie writes about farming. Georgie is passionate about supporting healthy, equitable and sustainable food production and thriving family farms.