UVM Extension Ag Engineering

Planning an Efficient and Safe Wash/Pack Area

By Chris Callahan, Hans Estrin, and Andy Chamberlin

Summary

Efficiency and food safety are integral parts of running a profitable and viable farm, producing high-quality produce, and retaining valuable employees. This integration should start with a vision in the planning stage of all postharvest projects. 

Planning with efficiency and safety in mind ensures that growers “own” their systems and spend time and attention where it counts. This will help create systems and infrastructure that support business goals, markets, and production style. This ownership and planning are key to implementation success.

Focus areas of efficiency and food safety include flow, buildings, infrastructure, equipment, tools, and produce safety planning. Each of these topics will be explored below.

Flow

Following a key concept of “lean farming,” it is helpful to think about how things will move through your wash/pack area.  We like to think about it in terms of how people, product, water, and waste flor through your space. Ideally, flow is in one direction to avoid backtracking (wasted steps) and potential cross contamination (clean produce intersecting that coming in from the field.) We have seen some creative solutions using U-flow to achieve the same goal in tighter quarters.

These two schematic layouts provide very generic samples of wash/pack flow arrangements. Whether you are able to achieve single-pass, straight-through flow, a U-turn setup, or even a T-setup, the principles remain: save steps, prevent cross-contamination, and get the product to storage temperature as quickly as possible.

Flow of People

How do you and others move into and through the wash and pack area?  If it is an enclosed building, do you have enough doors to allow efficiency movement in and out of the space?  Can you easily carry heavier totes of vegetables in and out? If you’re large enough to be moving vegetables with pallet bins, you may want a larger sliding or overhead door.  If you are not in an enclosed space, you may still want to think about how foot traffic is prevented where you don’t want people entering or leaving the space.

Large overhead doors are helpful for moving large carts and pallets of bins, or even for moving single bins by hand with ease. Separate, dedicated doors for people to move through can be helpful for separating the flow of people and product when needed.

Flow of Product

It can be helpful to zoom out and think about the flow of product from field to table or field to market. Looking at your farm using Google Maps can be helpful to thinking about locations of fields and wash/pack areas relative to each other.  The routes between them also become more clear when zoomed out.  Are you using the best route to move produce from the field to the wash/pack area? Are there any sources of contamination between the field and wash/pack like a compost pile or livestock area that should be avoided? Are you using the best bin, tote, or container for the produce and your operation?

Once produce is in the wash/pack it is usually best to work toward a directional flow from field to market in one direction.  Avoid backtracking. Once produce is washed, keep it moving in the direction toward a cooler or market and avoid retracing steps with clean produce.

Establishing and maintaining a cold chain is important for preserving product quality. By reducing product temperature to appropriate storage temperature quickly, you reduce respiration and help maintain peak harvest quality.

Flow of Water

Water is typically used to wash vegetables, harvest bins, market bins, equipment and tools. Do you have a reliable source of safe water?  Have you considered hanging hoses to keep them off the ground? Once you are done with that water, where does it go?  Intentional drainage helps keep water moving in the right direction (away from clean produce) and keeps the floor clear of standing water which can be a hazard. A good floor can also help with this. Similar to the way we want to avoid bringing clean produce back in the direction of the field, we also want draining wash water to head away from the place where we are using it to clean produce.

In-floor drains and relatively smooth, pitched concrete floors make it easier to wash down at the end of the day.

Flow of Waste

Washing and trimming produce can result in some residue that should be kept separate from produce for market. Seconds, culls, tops, etc. should be kept in a designated container and emptied in the compost bin, livestock feed trough or other “waste” stream daily. Compost piles should be located away from wash/pack areas. Accumulated produce waste can attract wildlife which can be a produce safety hazard.

Buildings & Infrastructure

You can wash produce just about anywhere, and we’ve seen some pretty creative, simple, and inexpensive setups. But, a little shade cover goes a long way and can be provided with a simple pop-up tent. A step up from that is a more permanent pole shed. Sometimes referred to as “four sticks and lid”, this can provide three seasons of fairly comfortable space to work in. 

This robust, three-season wash/pack shed provides shade and cover from rain leading to a comfortable and organized space to handle produce headed to market.

If you’re planning on winter production or washing and packing winter storage crops, you’re probably going to want an enclosed space with a little heat.  An insulated, heated space can be a life changer, although it does require an investment.

An insulated, heated space with wash-down ready walls helps make for a comfortable, efficient and safe winter wash/pack setup.

Cold and warm storage spaces are also something most farms find useful.  There are many options for building insulated walls that also keep rodents out. Many farms have found that using a CoolBot™ controlled air conditioner for cooling their spaces is a low-cost way of starting out with refrigeration.

Equipment

Washing equipment can be as simple as a sink or tub.  It can also be more complex, taking the form of conveyor wash lines. Decisions about specific equipment will depend greatly on the scale of your farm operation, your market, your labor, and the crops you are handling and storing. We have started to compile a variety of case studies showing how farms of different scales and complexity have made their decisions. These case studies include Foot Print FarmLast Resort FarmRoot 5 Farm, and Mighty Food Farm.

It is important to make sure the equipment you are using to wash produce is washable itself.  This is known as hygienic design, and we have some resources that can help you apply this principle to your farm.

Tools

There are a wide variety of tools that can make the washing and packing of produce easier and more efficient.  We’ve mentioned the wide array of bins, totes, and containers that are available.  Using different containers (or different colors) for harvest, storage, and market can help improve handling and safety. 

Tools should be easily cleaned and sanitized for the same reasons as equipment. Having a dedicated place for storing tools when not in use can help keep things clean and organized.  A magnetic knife strip, for example, is a common favorite.

Food Safety Plans and Certification

To maximize the benefits of implementing produce safety practices, growers should examine every step of their production system with an eye toward managing and minimizing food safety risks.  This effort will also reinforce focus on efficient flow of products, people and materials, durable, cleanable food contact services (hygienic design), and dedicated systems, bins, and tools.  Food safety planning also focuses on employees; in building a culture of good personal hygiene, risk management thinking, and systems thinking. This planning also results in clear Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for postharvest handling, storage, and clean-up.  This clarity can provide ownership and creative management opportunities for employees, and can increase crew morale, productivity, and loyalty. 

Based on markets and gross revenue, farms may need to verify the implementation of food safety practices by earning a certificate, completing a third party audit and perhaps even being inspected by state regulatory authorities.  A limited number of state and national programs provide food safety templates, certificate programs and audits for Vermont produce growers (e.g. VT-CAPS), allowing them to access markets, and build market integrity.

Some larger Vermont farms may also need to be inspected by state regulators and required to comply with The Food Safety Modernization Act’s (FSMAs’) Produce Safety Rule.

Regardless of your specific need, starting with a vision of efficiency and safety and walking through each step of your postharvest handling, storage and distribution system will help clarify and prioritize areas for improvement and growth.

About Us – Chris, Hans, and Andy are the UVM Extension Produce Safety Team. They work with growers to improve efficiency, quality, and safety of produce farms. This guest blog post is a summary of a half-day postharvest planning workshop they hold through-0ut the year. They can be reached at producesafety@uvm.edu. Learn more about the work Chris and Andy do with the UVM Extension Agricultural Engineering program at http://go.uvm.edu/ageng and follow them on social media at @uvmextageng. Learn more about Hans’ work with the VVBGA Community Accreditation for Produce Safety, CAPS) at https://practicalproducesafetyvt.wordpress.com/.

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