Staying Ahead in the Packshed: Postharvest Topics, Sources of Information, and Ideas from Growers

Last Fall we surveyed growers in the region about postharvest topics in preparation for a USDA NE SARE proposal. That proposal has been funded! Growers who responded assigned a high level of importance to aggregated postharvest knowledge (4.5/5.0, n=56) while indicating poor availability of the information (3.3/5.0, n=57). Several ideas for research topics were provided as well.

Our project will consolidate existing knowledge, best practices and new developments about postharvest equipment, infrastructure, and buildings into a print publication, a web-based handbook, workshop curriculum / educational materials, and recorded videos.

Our work will include (1) research into equipment and construction practices that are not common in the region and also (2) documentation of current best practices through case studies highlighting specific farms.

The seven question survey was administered electronically with outreach conducted via social media and established vegetable and berry listservs.

  • Geographic Distribution – A total of 57 responses were received from 11 states. Most were within the northeast region (86%), but some were not. States outside of the northeast included Michigan and Indiana.
  • Scale Distribution – The respondents represented farms of various size from <⅓ acre to 400 acres growing a wide range of fruits and vegetables.
  • 91% Value Postharvest Information – When asked to rate the “importance of information and knowledge about postharvest handling, washing, and storage systems and practices”, a majority of respondents (91%) answered either 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-5 (1=Not important, 5=Extremely important). The mean average response was 4.5/5.0 (n=56).
  • 58% Indicate Low Availability – When asked to rate the “the availability of information and knowledge about postharvest handling, washing, and storage systems and practices”, a majority of respondents (58%) answered 3 or below on a scale of 1-5 (1=Not available, 5=Extremely easy to find). A vast majority (93%) rated availability as 4 or below. The mean average response was 3.3/5.0 (n=57).
  • Topics of Interest – When presented with a randomized list of suggested topics and asked, “What topics would you like to have more information and knowledge about?”, respondents (n=57 with 415 individual topic responses) expressed interest in more information and knowledge in the following order:
    • Building and Construction Designs (70% of respondents),
    • Layout, flow, and organization (70%),
    • Utilities (Electric, Water, Heat, Refrigeration, etc.) (56%),
    • Building Materials (49%),
    • Greens Spinners (46%),
    • Dunk/Dump Tanks (42%),
    • Spray Tables (40%),
    • Wash Lines (39%),
    • Bubblers (39%),
    • Barrel/Drum Washers (37%),
    • Brush Washers (28%),
    • Bunch Washers (28%),
    • Rinse Conveyors (26%),
    • Conveyors (26%),
    • Forced Air Coolers (26%),
    • Hydrocoolers (18%).
    • Respondents offered additional topics of interest including
      • forced air dryers,
      • greens shakers (for drying),
      • ways to minimize washing (for produce safety reasons),
      • best practices by crop,
      • wash water discharge guidance,
      • processing topics, and
      • distribution/marketing channel best practices.
  • Sources of Information – When presented with a randomized list of suggested sources and asked, “What sources do you use for information about these topics?”, respondents (n=57 with 334 individual source responses) indicated use of sources in the following order:
    • Other Farmers (82% of respondents),
    • Conferences (68%),
    • Extension (65%),
    • Web-research (60%),
    • Grower meetings, twilight meetings, etc. (51%),
    • Experience (From apprenticing/early career) (49%),
    • Books or Journals (42%),
    • Listservs / email lists (40%),
    • YouTube (30%),
    • Community Based Organization (e.g. NOFA, CISA, etc.) (28%),
    • Instagram (26%),
    • Facebook (18%),
    • Podcasts (16%), and
    • Other Social Media (9%).
    • Only one respondent offered an additional source of information, Google (<2%).
  • Other Feedback – Several respondents voiced thanks for the proposed work and some provided specific, additional feedback as follows.
    • “It would be useful to have a resource list of professionals who could help with systems–builders with experience doing ag-specific projects, plumbers and electricians who understand the goals. Sometimes it makes sense to hire someone but it’s hard to figure out who that could be.”
    • “I’ve had great difficulty finding this information.”
    • “I have a very small urban farm that I run less than part-time by myself. Post harvest processes are a major factor in determining what I grow. Knowing storage temps, shelf live, best packaging and washing strategies for specific crops is important to help evaluate required time and profit. Thanks!”
    • “Our main problem is finding multi-use scale appropriate tools and systems. It feels as though most of the tools out there push you to scale up.”
    • “I like where this is going…ea. market has different coolers, tables, walk-ins, reach-ins etc. we are finding the heat from our reach-in makes the market too warm after the doors are closed at night and that if we put table display items – zuke, squash, peppers back in the walk-in the flesh can’t take the change in temps, so we have started just to move them to a cool room but would love to hear what other markets do.”
    • “Tools and techniques to train staff on these practices quickly yet thoroughly in a high turn-over system.”
    • “You are a huge help to farmers. Keep the ideas and info coming. Would love an annual conference/forum on this topic alone. In conjunction with VVBGA as an add-on day”
    • “Difficult to obtain centralized information about wash and pack – bits and pieces strewn all across the web. Looking forward to the results of your project – I don’t want to spend time re-inventing the wheel, I just want solid templates I can steal.  Thank you!”
    • “Maybe create a series of wash/pack set ups for different acreage…ie 1-2 acres might look like this, 3-19 might look like this, 20-49 might include this. Basically provide a “minimum” of what you really need, then how it would change as you grow.”
    • “We are going to need to replace our root vegetable wash/pack line at some point. It would be great to get some input on what is available and where to source from.”
    • “We are currently building a new wash pack house and found UVM’s ag engineering blog filled with great info and was a key resource in our planning. Finally, someone is talking about this stuff, Thank you.”
    • “Thank you for delving into this! Much needed and overlooked!”
    • “It would be great to have a list of which crops can be washed in which pieces of equipment.”

Do you have interest in participating in this project?  Have a great postharvest solution or tip to share?  Think there should be a solution to a continual postharvest problem?  Get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.