Our Vermillion Area Farmers Market starts in one week, and though I’m already delivering to my lone CSA member and selling a few veggies here and there to friends and regulars, I’m just starting on cleaning up some of the nuts and bolts of my full-scale harvest and sale kit.
As the greens are coming on heavily now, I’m sterilizing my 5 gallon salad spinner to aid with harvest and hydro-cooling of greens. It was an expensive piece of equipment (about $200), but has saved hours of time on my small operation. The first year of the CSA, I was spinning each individual bag of greens for ten members–some days there’d be a couple bags of greens in each delivery.
When the second year rolled around, and I had twenty members–there just was no way that was going to work anymore. I know some bigger producers use a washing machine’s gentle spin cycle, but for me, the salad spinner does the trick–5 bags at a time and get them in the cooler before spinning the next batch.
My harvest tubs have already been cleaned–though like the spinner, they’ll be cleaned, bleached, and air-dried several times throughout the season. Mostly I use a thing called a Trug tub–my mom gave me a set of three a couple years ago, and now I don’t know how I managed without them.
They’re a rubber bucket with handles that comes in a variety of sizes. I harvest (with scissors or harvest knife) directly into them, bring them up to the wash area, and fill the tub full of cold water–taking the field heat out of the veggies quickly. Then I pull the greens up out of the tub (leaving a fair amount of dirt behind), put them in the salad spinner, bag them, then get them in the big marine coolers.
I’d like to get a couple more Trug tubs (about $25-30 for a set, I think), but the two I use in the field are usually about right when I’m the one doing all the harvesting and hydrocooling. Each crop gets harvested, cooled, washed, bagged, and put on ice before I start on the next crop.
The coolers are the 102-quart white Rubbermaid marine coolers with the spigot on one end and heavy-duty handles. I have two (plus an assortment of smaller coolers as well), but I am thinking it’s about time to pick up another.
The first one I bought has lasted three seasons without showing much wear other than a few surface scratches on the outside. The coolers cost about $80-90 each–which is more or less the sale value of the produce you can fit in one depending on the produce and your market–so in a way, they pay for themselves from the first week’s sales out of them.
Each cooler holds about 25-30 bags of greens without crushing them down, but that’s not enough space now that I’m bringing most all the greens to market instead of splitting between CSA Tuesdays and market on Thursdays. I’m not sure I can fit more than three of those in my truck without stacking–but then what are bunjee cords for?
For the chill, I buy those permanent ice substitute packs that can be cleaned and sterilized and re-used. I’ve tried using the soft ones, but they always split and leak that blue crud all over the bottom of the cooler.
You can get away with three of the bigger ice packs in a marine cooler, but five is ideal when the weather heats up–and then you want to rotate the produce so the stuff on top doesn’t warm up too much. I always put a clean towel over the ice packs to keep the greens from touching the frozen blocks directly, which could damage their tender leaves.
When I set the coolers in my pickup bed, I line them up against the wheel wells, each one with the opening facing out, so I can pull what I need out of them from the side of the truck. The third cooler will likely go right up against the tailgate so I can get at the produce from the end as well.
That’s basically my set up for getting greens from field to wash to chill to market. It’s pretty pared down and not too expensive considering that the bigger-ticket items involved will give so many years of use and are so essential to an efficient process that preserves the quality of the produce for the customer.