The BarnHouse: Optimized for Modern Day Vegetable Farming at Footprint Farm

 Download the PDF Fact Sheet of this Post Harvest Case Study Here!

Taylor Hutchison and Jake Mendel own and operate Footprint Farm in Starksboro, VT. Starting their own farm in 2013, they now produce pretty much everything except storage potatoes and storage squash with 66 different kinds of vegetables grown in both fields and high-tunnels.

The new barn features everything needed for their diversified vegetable farm. In fact, it’s so efficient they live on the 2nd floor!

About Footprint Farm

  • Location: Starksboro, VT
  • Acreage: 2.5 (1.5 in production, 1 acre in cover crop)
  • Crops: Greens, tomatoes, root crops and more with 66 different types of vegetables grown
  • USDA Sales bracket: $100,000-249,999
  • Markets: CSA, farmers markets, restaurant/wholesale accounts
  • Crew: 4 (May-October), 2 (November – April)
  • Wash/Pack Operations: Triple bay greens washing with a converted washing machine salad spinner, Barrel/drum washer, bunch washing on spray table, 1 CoolBot walk-in cooler

Overview

The wash area is large, and open (20×48’) which makes it flexible for a variety of tasks. The farm triple washes greens using Rubbermaid bulk tanks, orange “fish baskets” and a modified washing machine spinner.

The “BarnHouse” is 36’x48’ and has two stories of 1,728 square feet. Two-thirds of the first floor is dedicated to washing and packing, the other third includes space for an egg washing station, cooler, employee break area, restroom, and a shop. The second floor is finished living space.

Special considerations that went into the design process included the main crops that will be washed, and what aspects of that process have been uncomfortable or inefficient in the past. For them, the focus on greens washing was the main priority.

Building materials were carefully considered to be durable, washable, and water resistant. In the wash area, they chose to go with corrugated metal roofing for the interior walls to meet these requirements.

Produce safety was in mind during the design process of this space. Some of the key elements include:

The walk-in cooler (10’x14’) is powered by a window AC unit and a CoolBot. It has a floor drain for easy cleanout. Plywood painted walls, and wire racking to hold Buckhorn bins packed for deliveries.
  • Highly durable for long-lasting function
  • A bright and clean space that’s pleasant for humans and not for pests
  • Separation of clean and dirty bins
  • Covered bin storage area
  • Egg cleaning area separated from produce, including its own entrance to the building separate from vegetables.
  • Easily cleanable floor (concrete) and walls (metal)
  • Proper drainage to control water
  • Bright lighting (easy to see dirt and grime)
  • Wash water is sourced from a drilled well

Reflecting on the new space, Taylor notes, “It’s so fast now, there is not even an opportunity for things to get damaged or dirty.”  Going from the field, to the barn, washed, packed, and stored in a cooler quickly and methodically reduces the risk of contamination.

Many design features were implemented to make this a very practical space. Examples include the use of 4’ wide people doors for easy maneuverability and an overhead door where the product comes in. A trench drain was installed in the washing space to carry the wash water out into a dedicated leach field constructed with perforated pipe that ends in a gravel area.

An outside wash space used for cleaning root crops or harvest containers on nice days. Plastic coated wire shelves sit on saw horses for versatile set-ups.

Labor savings both in time and money has been seen as a result of this new build. Having a place for everything makes it easy to find. Putting things on wheels provides for adaptability. Having enough space to work and move makes it easy to get the vegetables washed and to market as quickly and easily as possible.

A typical cleaning procedure for the harvest containers, tools, and equipment consist of a daily rinse off of dirt and debris and scrubbing with soap and water as needed. For example, a deeper clean is typically needed after harvesting squash or other vegetables that can leave a sticky sap. Everything gets a scrub down with soap and water monthly if not needed prior.

The Why

“We wanted to do year-round production with-out a winterized building,” Taylor explains thinking back about their previous setup. “But, it was too painful on our hands to be able to wash greens through the winter.” They also had problems getting rid of the wash water with nowhere for it to drain. The continued growth of the farm pointed toward having employees in the winter and they couldn’t put others through the pain of cold wet hands.  At the time of planning, they also were commuting to the farm and wanted to build a house on location. They decided it made more much more sense to build one combined building rather than two separate ones. This simplified both planning and construction and reduced worrying about how to winterize both a barn for work and a house for living.

Another great benefit that’s arisen from the BarnHouse build is that the profitability is greatly increased due to product quality improvements. “Our cull rates have plummeted since we got this building and our quality has increased immensely this year.”  This increase in quality has made it possible for them to sell everything they harvest, reducing both food waste and time into production!

The floor plan for the first floor of the Barn includes space for washing and packing, a cooler, bathroom, break area, egg washing, and a workshop.

Cost

Everyone on the farm loves that everything is on wheels. These wire racks are easy to move around and are used for all kinds of tasks from landing vegetables from the field, holding packed produce to bring into the cooler, or stacking wash totes to dry.

The total cost to build the BarnHouse was about $300,000. The contractors they worked with said that a project like this fully hired out would have cost close to half a million dollars.

Tactics to keep costs down

  • Self-designed the building
  • Helped out with the construction
  • Milled the lumber on-site

Favorite Things

“Natural light through large windows and everything painted white with tall ceilings make it a bright and cheery place to work.”

Other Favorite Elements of this build:

  • Heated Space via an electric heat pump
  • 100% of electrical needs covered by green energy (Solar)
  • Bright Cleanable Walls – Metal Roofing – go.uvm.edu/smoothnclean  – about $1.00 per square foot.
  • Trench Drains
  • Everything on wheels
  • Covered outdoor space

Regrets

Favorite thing: “Building a shed roof on one side to create covered space outside the building has been wonderful.” It’s used to store equipment, like lawn mowers, hand tools and is even a great place to hang a hammock or park a bike.

This project was well thought out and the benefits far outweigh the regrets. A few things that didn’t go as planned was the floor didn’t get pitched perfectly to the drain, so water doesn’t flow as well as it should. Taylor wishes there was a person-door in addition to the garage door on the side where the product comes in, but the rest of the crew agrees one is not needed. They had to change the way they pull up from the field to their unloading space due to the location of the septic, which changes the flow of operation which is less than ideal. Other than thinking about septic placement a little further ahead of time, regrets so far are minimal items like light switch placement and a few small things like that.

Key Influencers and partners

USDA REAP Program – This Rural Energy for America Program is a grant that paid a portion of the solar panels installed by SunCommon which cover all of their electrical cost for the entire year! Learn more about their decision to go solar in this video.

CoolBot (Store It Cold) was helpful in figuring out the temperature differences causing humidity and condensation.

Consultation from other farming peers was helpful including Danielle from Root 5 Farm in Fairlee, VT for their building design with covered outdoor space or Christa from Jericho Settlers Farm for guidance influencing natural light to make it an enjoyable space. Ben Hartman, farmer of Clay Bottom Farm and author of The Lean Farm, helped nail down the flow of production.

University of Vermont Extension Ag Engineering helped with guidance on wall finishes surfaces and VVBGA CAPS helped with examples of how to make things comfortable and safe.

Taylor and Jake are both thrilled to have built this building. It has improved their daily lives so well that it’s an enjoyable place to live and work. Though it was a costly project it’s quickly paying for its self by increasing quality, widening margins and providing more goods to go to market. By having a clean, bright, and comfortable place to work they are able to retain their employees for the following season. By utilizing solar energy, reducing food waste, and growing organic vegetables this improvement is enabling a sustainable farm to be a sustainable business.

If you would like to see Footprint Farm’s wash space in action check out the videos below! The playlist features a 2.5min promo, the full interview explaining the features of the wash-pack space (6min), more in-depth experiences and challenges from the build process (12min) and the last video showcases washing a batch of greens through their system (2min). Enjoy!


Acknowledgments

Funding for this publication was made possible, in part, by the Food and Drug Administration through grant PAR-16-137, by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Food Safety Outreach Program award 2016-70020-25792 accession 1010528 and by The Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets via the  Integrated Extension Educational Programming in Support of the VAAFM Produce Program Grant 02200-FSMA-2018-01. The views expressed in the publication do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Vermont Agency of Agriculture; nor does any mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organization imply endorsement by the United States Government or the State of Vermont.

Footprint Farm: Post Harvest Case Study – Video Series

Looking to upgrade your wash-pack space? Check out this interview with Taylor Hutchison from Footprint Farm talking about their motivations for building a new barn (house!) and including all the features they implemented to make it food safe and efficient. Stay tuned for a written case study, and a downloadable pdf coming soon. The playlist below features a 2.5min promo, an interview explaining the features of the wash-pack space (6min), more in-depth experiences and challenges from the build process (12min) and the last video showcases washing a batch of greens through their system (2min). Enjoy the videos!

Hanging Hoses

Having water when and where you need it can make a big difference in vegetable wash station efficiency. Planning for multiple “drops” or spigots around the wash area can make it more convenient to access water where it is needed. It can be helpful to consider the routing of the supply lines to avoid condensation on people and produce.  Cold water flowing through the lines on a warm humid day can result in condensation of water that can drop from the lines.  Running the lines away from walkways and produce areas can avoid this being a problem.  Running the lines down low in wash areas can also help keep any condensation exposure at a minimum.

Also, investing in a hose hanger, hose reel or a trolley can help keep the hose off the ground, resulting in a cleaner and more safe work environment. Continue reading Hanging Hoses

Bins, Buckets, Baskets & Totes

Many diversified farms have a variety of containers to best handle individual crops.

So you’re starting to farm, or scaling up your production. You hear talk about food safety, and cleanability.  You are checking out what other farms are doing and are looking for harvest crates and storage bins.

You probably noticed lots of people use many different things. Some use 5-gallon pails, milk crates, muck buckets, some use totes found at the box stores, yet others use what seem to be specific, grey, flip top totes. Does it matter what you use? Not really, but you should have some sort of method to the madness on your farm to help minimize contamination, reduce mix-ups and wasted time on your farm. Consistency is key to organization and efficiency.

I commonly hear “Ok, I like this style of totes/bins/crates, where do I find them?” Well hopefully, this blog post will have a few suggestions to point you in the right direction with user reviews, distributor information, comparison chart, and pictures of features.  Continue reading Bins, Buckets, Baskets & Totes

A Vegetable Farming “Must Have”: Harvest Tote

Every vegetable farm must have a harvest tote, and I don’t mean a basket for picking into. What I’m referring to is a box with the daily essentials in it so you’re never without, and don’t have to go back to the barn.

This “Just-In-Time” kit is taken right out of the Lean principles and works outstanding on the farm just as it does in the automotive or manufacturing industry. Lisa MacDougall of Mighty Food Farm in Shaftsbury, VT swears by this little blue box she calls the “Harvest Tote” which holds all the essentials needed for daily harvesting out of the field.

What’s should you have in the box?

  • Harvest Knives
  • Snippers
  • Scissors
  • Sharpening Stone
  • Rubber Bands
  • Harvest Log
  • Pen, pencil or marker

This box always gets placed in the truck, every morning. These essential tools are kept all together and in one place at all times minimizing time to look for tools, or trips back to the packshed because the rubber bands were forgotten. This reduces downtime and saves wasted steps leading to increased efficiencies of operation.

This kit has food safety benefits too! With all the tools stored together, they are cleaned and sanitized all at the same time and logged, usually on a weekly basis. This Friday afternoon cleaning is also an opportunity for a weekly sharpening so all tools are in good shape for the week ahead. Keeping the tools in a tote keeps the knives from getting used for other activities outside of harvest which could contaminate them and make them dirty. Keeping the knives in a tote, also ensures that they are not stored in a hard to wash sheath, tossed on the dash of the truck, cup holder of the tractor etc.

Implementing this standard has many benefits and could be a great tech-tip to consider on your farm.

Construction Details for a Counter-top Forced Air Cooler

To learn more about forced air cooling visit go.uvm.edu/forcedaircooling

To download the PDF version of this plan click here!


Farms that need to cool smaller volumes of produce can also benefit from forced air cooling. Whether cooling stacked pallets, pallet bins or individual cartons, the same principals apply. A smaller pallet cooler was noted on the previous page, but this concept can be scaled down even further to fit your needs. Here is a prototype, that could fit on a countertop with-in a walk-in cooler.

Framing:

Constructed of 2×4’s on top of a horizontal base made from 1/2” plywood cut 24” deep and 44” wide. Angled reinforcements were needed to stiffen the assembly.

Plenum Panel:

Continue reading Construction Details for a Counter-top Forced Air Cooler

Construction Details for a Pallet Forced Air Cooler

The blower is just placed up to the cut-out hole, on a shelf. This unit has a very simple shelf and feet to add some stability.

To learn more about forced air cooling visit go.uvm.edu/forcedaircooling

To download the PDF version of this guide click here!


Framing:

2”x12” lumber to make a 43” wide x 74” tall x 11-1/4” deep plenum for suction air distribution.

Plenum Panel:

3/8” CDX Plywood with an 11-1/4” circle cut out for the blower suction inlet. Position this whole centered for even air pressure.

Plastic Wrap:

Continue reading Construction Details for a Pallet Forced Air Cooler

Forced Air Cooling On The Farm

A downloadable/printable pdf of this article is available here.

Introduction

A commercial forced air cooler in a produce distribution facility

The preservation of quality in fresh market and storage crops on small and medium-sized farms in the Northeast depends on the rapid reduction of pulp temperature and maintenance of relatively low temperatures to slow metabolic respiration.

There is strong foundational work showing that rapidly reducing the temperature at the start of the cold chain increases product quality when delivered to the consumer. Postharvest handling is critical for fresh produce farmers and the markets they sell to. Effort and expense invested in growing fruits and vegetables can be wasted without good handling practices at and following harvest (Gross 2014). Consumers expect the best from fresh produce. Quality and freshness are ranked with high importance among consumers. Farmers market respondents respectively rank quality (63% ) and freshness (59%), as highly important factors in their buying decisions. Nearly 87% of the respondents indicated that availability and quality of fresh produce affected their decision about where to purchase (Gorindasamy 2002).

Precooling involves flowing a controlled, chilled fluid (air or water) over the product to improve heat transfer for removal of field heat to depress respiration and initiate the cold chain.

Figure 1—Produce packed in cartons, lugs, or other containers will not cool rapidly even when placed in a cooler. The cold air does not have sufficient velocity or pressure to pass into the center of the pallet or even to the center of a single carton, even when the containers have vented sides. Heat removal from the produce depends on conduction through produce and cartons which is slow.
Figure 2—Using a high-pressure blower, cool air can be pulled through cartons of produce to remove field heat and reduce product temperature to storage temperature more quickly. The heat removal rate from the produce is enhanced due to increased convective cooling in addition to conduction. This lowers respiration and leads to improved quality.

Precooling

This is a 4-foot tall version of a simple, portable forced air cooler. It is being used to cool a mixed pallet of fresh picked zucchini, summer squash, and peppers.

One of the most important postharvest factors influencing quality is temperature. Temperature directly impacts the rate of metabolic respiration and associated decay. Produce which is not cooled quickly degrades in quality (Sargeant 1991). Table grapes, for example, deteriorate more in 1 hour at 90 °F then in one day at 39 °F or one week at 32 °F (Thomson et al 2008). Lower quality leads to a decrease in sales, inefficient use of storage space, and wasted labor due to the time taken to grow, clean, and store product that doesn’t sell. Coolers are a good addition to most farms but fall short of meeting optimal precooling needs. When produce is packed in boxes, stacked on a pallet and directly placed into a cooler, cooling time will be a minimum of 24 hours and may take many days. (Thompson et al 2008).

One method to reduce cooling time is through forced air cooling (FAC). In FAC systems, refrigeration cools a space and blowers are set in position to actively draw the cold air through the produce. The cooling time drops from 24 hours to 10 hours or less when using a static cold room due to the increased air flow (increased convective heat transfer) (Thompson et al 2008, Boyette 1989).

Attempts have been made at smaller scale pre-coolers to reduce field heat at harvest in absence of coolers (Thompson and Spinoglio 1996). Retrofitting a cargo container with insulation and cooling with a large capacity air conditioner was also explored (Boyette & Rohrbach 1990). This forced-air cold room offered space for many pallets of produce but it still took many hours to reduce the temperature internally, especially for the boxes on pallets in the center of the container. The key is integrating both cooling and air flow effectively (see Figures 1 & 2).

A mobile forced air cold box mounted on a trailer was constructed and demonstrated in Florida (Talbot and Fletcher 1993) aimed at farms growing produce on 5-50 acres. This unit could be self-built. Experiments showed that grapes could be cooled by 15 °F per hour. For denser produce like melons and tomatoes, the cooling times were longer. The construction cost at that time was close to $5,000.

We have built prototype FAC’s for a single, fully or partially loaded pallet (figure 2) and also a 1-3 carton (either bulb crate or 1 1/9th bushel box) “counter-top” model. The construction details of these units are provided on the following pages of the PDF linked above.

123 lbs of Watermelons will take a long time to cool, but forced air cooling removed field heat 2 times faster than ambient room cooling.

Key Points of Precooling

  • Starts the cold chain by rapidly reducing respiration.
  • Reduced respiration leads to higher quality over a longer storage and distribution time.
  • Cooling is improved with the combination of active cooling and forced air flow with a blower.
  • 1-3 CFM of airflow at 0.5 IWC static pressure per pound of product is the rule of thumb for sizing.
  • Ventilated containers (e.g. holes or slats) are necessary to ensure airflow is actually through the product.
  • Close up any large openings to prevent short-circuiting air flow.

Build Plans

Sound like a good idea to you? Build plans are available for both of these prototypes!

For the pallet-sized unit check out this post –> http://go.uvm.edu/palletcooler

This is a video from a field trial of a modified pallet sized cooler! https://youtu.be/Ccy5KxrVhPk

For the counter-top forced air cooler, take a look here –> http://go.uvm.edu/countertopfac

Acknowledgments

Funding for this publication was made possible, in part, by the USDA NE SARE program under grant #LNE16-347.

Simple Ergonomics and Lean Thinking at Chewonki Farm

I recently visited Chewonki, a school, camp, and farm in Wisscasset, ME that had a recent visit from an ergonomics consultant at their beautiful new pack shed. Some insurance companies offer these visits for free as an injury (and claim) prevention measure.

Several things that struck me:

  • They were experimenting with different heights for wash bins, harvest crate landing zones, and drying racks using combinations of cinder blocks, stacked pallets and adjustable kitchen racks. They have a constantly changing work crew of different ages and physical abilities. I thought it was a great way of settling into a new workspace and getting a feel for efficiency, flow, and positions of things before committing with permanent fixtures.
    Lessons learned:

    • bring the work to you, and
    • prototype your layout before building anything permanent.

 

  • The tool shed attached to the wash packed shed was highly organized. Again, with a dynamic, changing crew it is important that tool location be standard and searching be minimized.
    Lessons learned:

    • a place for everything, and everything in its place.

 

  • I loved the lighter grey stock tankss / waterers they were using. They allow easy checks for water change timing (vs. darker materials).
    Lessons learned:

    • consider all options when purchasing what seems like a simple, standard thing
    • passive solutions to challenges often come at little to no cost premium.

Thanks to the fine fine folks at Chewonki for hosting me and sharing some of the great work they’re doing. They also have a whale skeleton hanging in one of their main halls. That is another story.