Harvesting & handling greens

Harvesting fresh greens for market needs to be done right to maximize the quality and freshness of the product. Greens are very susceptible to heat, sun, and wind, and need to be handled gently and cooled quickly. We’ve been using a system for several years that works very well for us, and gives us the long shelf life customers tell us about.

All greens, whether lettuce, cooking greens, or baby leaf mixes, are cut with knives and placed directly into containers of cold water. Above, you see Joanna with a typical harvest container. We’ll keep adding cut leaves until the container is reasonably full, but the leaves can still be pushed underwater and swirled around.

This method chills the greens instantly, arresting the decay process that begins the moment a leaf is separated from its roots. Even a few minutes sitting out in the sun and wind can start to degrade leaves, so going right into the water both protects the leaf and sucks the heat out of it. Even on a 60-70 degree day, the effect is very noticeable. By the time a full container makes it back to a packing station, the water is quite noticeably warmer.

Once harvested, the leaves are swirled around in their original water to get most of the dirt off. We’ll also try to float off any clover, straw, or other plant scraps we don’t want. Then the greens are transferred by hand into a separated container of clean, cold water and given another rinse. From there they go into the salad spinner (above, right) to get most water off them, then packed gently into lidded containers. Within an hour, they’re in a fridge at proper storage temperature of mid-30s.

These methods help ensure the greens are very good when they get to market, but their life at market is still difficult. Any kind of breeze or sun exposure hits greens hard, and we try to be really careful how they’re presented. The nature of a farmers market is that we have to have bins of greens open for people to see, plus we like the flexibility of custom-bagging, but anything at the top will start to degrade after about half an hour. When it’s busy, natural turnover keeps new leaves on top, but when it’s slow we’ll start pre-bagging 1/2lb bags to aid in the turnover. The bags protect the leaves, while giving customers an easier option than custom-bagging an amount.

Over the last few years we’ve been happy with the greens quality these methods have given us, and most feedback agrees. We did have one customer last year tell us some lettuce didn’t last very long once he got it home; it seemed to be one variety in our lettuce mixes. We did some tests and home and determined that while every variety stored for weeks just fine in the fridge, that one variety was especially susceptible to the open-air conditions at market. In other words, his lettuce was great when it got to market, but that one variety sat out just a little too long and was degraded by wind by the time he got it home. It seems to have been more sensitive than the rest. So we’re even more careful now about our at-market handling.
Certainly if anyone does have a problem, we hope they’ll let us know. But overall we’re pleased with the quality we get by harvesting into cold water and handling carefully.

One thought on “Harvesting & handling greens

  1. Hey Eric,I thought I might try and get ahold of you this way. I've tried to send you a couple e-mails but they've gotten returned to me saying that your mailbox is full? Give me a call sometime tonight or Sunday night so I can chat with you about the cover crop seed. Hope you had a good market day!Liz