How Packhouses Work: The Art of Cleaning, Counting, and Sorting Vegetables

July 26, 2018

Can you imagine a place where melons are buffed, tomatoes are examined, polished and stacked, lush greens are washed carefully, then spun dry, and berries are delicately rolled into pint boxes? These are only a few of the activities that go on inside a farm’s packing house. All of these processes are done with care in order to ensure that fresh and delicious food is served on your kitchen table.

The entire packhouse operation has a slew of moving parts. It requires multitasking skills from each individual involved, as well as cohesive communication across the entire crew. It’s loud, involves a decent amount of heavy lifting, and can sometimes be the coldest spot on the farm in the winter months. But farms all over the great state of Pennsylvania continue to successfully operate their packhouses day in and day out, with the hopes of sending their freshly cleaned and cared for vegetables to their ideal end destination – your plate!

Time is of the essence in the packhouse and all activities are strategically focused to support that notion. If you’ve ever selected seasonal vegetables from a local source and felt mesmerized by how beautiful – bright, fresh, and appetizing – they appear, then you probably have a packhouse crew member to thank. Here’s how it all works:

The Packhouse Dirt

After a harvest, vegetables often enter a packhouse covered in dirt, mud, or debris. The main goals are to pass the vegetables through a cleaning process and reduce the heat from the field as quickly as possible to maintain freshness and flavor.

The two main ways of cleaning a large harvest are dry polishing and washing. The method chosen is highly dependent upon the type of vegetable. A majority of vegetables are put under or submerged in cool water. Loose greens are gently tumbled in sinks or “bubblers”, quickly spun, drained, and then bagged (or stored collectively in a bin and covered) to prevent wilting. Heads and bundles of greens get a vigorous dunking and close inspection for damage. Some farms also utilize a washing belt – picture a car wash for vegetables – or barrel tumblers. The methods see the likes of produce that sturdier than leafy greens, and can move through the machine without getting stuck.

The farmhands tasked with packhouse duties could easily be mistaken for fisherman or dockhands, as their uniforms consist of various layers of rain gear, especially during the colder months, when they’ll try anything and everything to keep their clothes and bodies’ dry.

Lastly, some vegetables don’t require washing at all. Corn and beans obviously have a protective cover but are still inspected before being packed for the consumer. Large squash, like big pumpkins, are dry brushed. Broccoli and cauliflower sometimes require close examination and/or an ice bath for best preservation prior to consumption. And a skilled tomato farmer will only have to lightly polish the harvest.

How Much? And Where the Heck?

Keep in mind, these vegetables that need quick and careful attention are often arriving to the packhouse in large quantities and from all angles, as different crews work different parts of the farm to harvest heat sensitive vegetables prior to the mid-day sun. And most vegetables are heat sensitive. It’s a race against time with the necessity for close attention to detail. While the packhouse crew is focused on properly cleaning and inspecting the vegetables, they must also be aware of the daily counts.

Depending on the operation, there may be multiple quantity goals for just one vegetable. For example, a farm that has a farm stand, CSA, and wholesale (sells to local vendors, like a specialty grocer, for the customer to purchase indirectly) would have three different numbers to hit for peppers. They may need 150 peppers for the stand, 300 for the CSA, and 500 for wholesale. There can be multiple vegetables harvested that require multiple counts, which makes the elementary skill of counting suddenly seem complicated. To add a little challenge, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have questions and requests coming at you from other farmhands every time you’re in the middle of a count. A handheld tally counter is ideal, but can be tricky when you need to move quickly. Most farms develop systems for counting like easily referenced, uniform rows and layers in crates, cases, and coolers.

Culling the “Herd”

Vegetables are sorted and graded while simultaneously cleaned and counted. It is a bit of an ongoing process that every packhouse hand must be tuned into. Is this vegetable big enough? Small enough? Too soft? Ripe enough? The vegetables are examined to be grouped with similar vegetables but also to be removed from the line if they’re not suitable for any sort of sale. Ideally they’re donated to a food bank or pantry or return to the soil as compost when culled.

Once they’re sorted off the cleaning line, they may also be separated and organized in the walk-in cooler according to their final destinations – farm stand or market, CSA, or wholesale. This process for organization is critical to the efficiency of the packhouse and overall ability of the farm business to deliver satisfaction to the consumer.

Show your support for local by submitting your thoughts and feedback here.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Instagram Feed

  • Good Evening from @oaknutfarm ! Thanks for following along today and joining us in celebrating #paproducemonth . We really enjoyed sharing a bit about our farm and are truly honored to be a part of the amazing PA food shed and it’s community of dedicated produce growers. 
#paveggies #paveggiesguestig
  • This is Sean and my 5th growing season as @oaknutfarm though we have been doing the organic vegetable farming shindig together since 2006. We met and worked at/managed three other produce farms in PA, NJ, and VA prior to moving back to PA to be closer to family. (Side bar: For anyone considering this line of livelihood—because it’s not just work—we highly suggest being an intern or apprentice first). Our previous experience has guided a lot of our decision making process on what to grow and how to grow it—but our main goal is that it tastes good! We pride ourselves on nourishing our local community with the highest quality produce. Sean and I really enjoy adding a few new crops (and dumping some) each season to our repertoire of 40 different vegetables, fruits, herbs, and specialty items—like log-grown shiitake and oyster mushrooms, fresh ginger and turmeric, and cut flowers.
#paproducemonth #paveggies #paveggiesguestig
  • After lunch is always doggie walking time with our sweet rescue “sholly” (Shepherd/Border Collie Mix), Sienna. We usually head out to the farm and on her favorite days she gets to chase down a groundhog. 
Our farm land was originally my parent’s and where we had a family garden growing up. The property is about 18 acres (12 tillable) and located close to the Blue Mountains and Appalachian Trail. We grow on less than three acres and have two passive solar high tunnels.

Our home property is located two doors down from my parent’s home and diagonal from the farm land. Our house was actually my childhood best friend’s house—so I spent just as much time in the house as my own as a kid. 
Our home property is also where we have our On-Farm Farm Stand and where we do our produce washing and packing. This afternoon we were busy doing our final harvesting and prep for our farm stand which is open today from 3-6pm. A big highlight for today was the first official TWO half pints of red raspberries for sale that my husband Sean picked from the raspberry canes he and Ginger gifted me for Mother’s Day last year. We since have added two more beds from that original nurse row for a total of 600 feet of raspberry canes! Next year will certainly be amazing!!! #paveggies #paveggiesguestig #paproducemonth
  • The month of August, for most produce farmers I think, feels like a non-stop marathon. But, instead of running, you’re sprinting the entire way and never quite catching up. This morning was a perfect example—beginning with a computer that refused to turn on so I could send out our weekly farm newsletter—that of course was supposed to be sent out last evening. Once the sun came up and the computer remained asleep—I decided to delay the newsletter (again) and continue to the flower harvesting for today’s on-farm farm stand and for one of our restaurant wholesale orders. After the flowers, it was time to tend to the laying ducks and chickens with our 7-year-old daughter, Ginger. She completes this task often still wearing her pjs—and I don’t mind one bit—as I appreciate the help and the extra snuggles she give the ladies while I’m buzzing around. Then it’s off to town to make our restaurant delivery and pick up some groceries and poultry feed before heading back home for lunch.

#paproducemonth #paveggies #paveggiesguestig
  • Good Morning from @oaknutfarm ! My name is Jennifer and today I’ll be sharing about our small family farm located in northwestern Berks County in our Instagram takeover of #paveggies in honor of #paproducemonth . But first I need to finish harvesting flowers and have some coffee. Thanks for following along!

#paveggiesguestig
  • Today we’re heading to Bethel PA to let @oaknutfarm tell their #paveggies story. Their roots run deep in the good food and farming world so you’ll want to tune in for this special takeover in honor of #paproducemonth #pennsylvania #vegetables #bethel #berkscounty #farmlife #goodfood #localfood #agriculture
  • Thank y’all so much for following along today! There’s so much more to share, so follow along at @kneehighfarm to see how our season grows. Many thanks to @paveggies for hosting these farmer takeovers, and bringing awareness to #paproducemonth ! Take care y’all, and enjoy the late summer bounty! #paveggies #paveggiesguestig #kneehighfarm #igtakeover #localfarms #buyfreshbuylocalpa
  • As of last year, a new addition to the farm was cut flowers. These have proven to be incredible attractants for beneficial pollinators. They are also a profitable option for areas of the farm where growing veggies isn’t ideal due to soil quality. •
•
If you drive by the farm, the flowers are the first area you see near our farm stand. We like to think of them attracting and welcoming folks to the farm (just like the bees!) Our farm stand is open to the public, Tuesdays from 3 - 6, and Wednesday - Saturday most of the day (honor system). We’d love to have you stop by and take a peak at what we got growing. #paveggies #paproducemonth #paveggiesguestig #kneehighfarm #farmstand #cutflowers #polinators
  • Growing delicious veggies all starts with the soil. We’ve been experimenting with low-till techniques to reduce compaction and increase soil biology and structure. We farm in a very wet area, with heavy clay as the predominant soil type. It is our top priority to feed and heal the soil, so we can grow the most nutritious and healthiest vegetables. 
#paveggies #paveggiesguestig #kneehighfarm #healthysoil #healthesoil #certifiednaturallygrown #paproducemonth #beyondorganic

Follow Me!

Follow PA Veggies