Keeping your agricultural production operation running efficiently requires a lot of planning and preparation. As a fruit or vegetable grower, it’s important to know the best post-harvest handling practices to ensure quality and safe products are delivered to the end consumer. Not following the proper post-harvest techniques can lead to decreased shelf life and even spoilage or shrinkage of your produce.
The steps you take are critical to ensuring your produce is ready for sale or storage. In this blog post, we will discuss six tips for optimal post-harvest processes that will help you maximize the shelf life of your agricultural products.
1. Sort and Clean Your Product to Minimize Microbial Contamination
The first post-harvest handling step is sorting and cleaning the product. This will help remove any debris or microorganisms that may be on the fruits or vegetables. Sorting helps to identify any defects so they can be removed before packing. It also helps remove any product or portions of products that may be unusable or unsellable. Sorting is mostly done by hand and can be a tedious task, but it is crucial for maintaining the quality of the product before packaging and storage.
Sorting products mostly involves checking for:
- Contaminated products – Remove any products that are visibly contaminated with dirt, mud, or pests.
- Unusable product – Remove any product that is damaged or has a defect that would make it unsellable. This includes products with bruises, cuts, blemishes, etc.
- Incorrect size/shape – Remove any products that are not the correct size or shape for the variety. This is critical during post-harvest handling as it is crucial to maintain uniformity in the final product.
- Senescing product – Remove any product that is beginning to senesce or show signs of deterioration and will not last for an extended period.
- Insect damaged product – Remove any product that is infested with insects.
- Products with broken skin – Remove any product that has broken or open skin.
- Products that are out of grade – Remove any product that does not meet the grade requirements for the variety.
All of these conditions can lead to problems with storage and transport as they may cause additional deterioration during this process. Once the sorting is complete, clean the fruits or vegetables to remove any surface microorganisms. Do this using a gentle stream of water or brush them with a soft brush. Don’t use too much force as this could damage the product, making it susceptible to microbial contamination.
Cleaning helps to remove any dirt, dust, or microorganisms that may have contaminated your product while in the field or during post-harvest handling processes. It’s vital to use a sanitizing agent if there is any concern about microbial contamination. Proper sorting and cleaning post-harvest techniques ensure you provide customers with attractive and clean products with minimal contamination risk.
2. Ensure Safe Product Packaging to Protect the Integrity of the Product
Improper packaging can lead to damaged fruit or vegetables, resulting in decreased market access, reduced demand for the product, and lower prices for growers. When selecting your packaging, you must take into account:
- The type of crop being packaged
- Packaging material (plastic, corrugated cardboard) required by markets
- The weight and dimensions of the product
- Packing method (case packing, single layer packing)
- Labeling requirements
Product packaging is a critical post-harvest handling process that must protect the product from physical damage, minimize moisture loss, and prevent contamination. Careful selection of packaging materials is critical to ensure safe and high-quality products reach the consumer. The ultimate goal is to ensure the integrity of the product is maintained from the farm to the table.
The packaging containers used must be food-grade quality and clean. Plastic containers should be smooth with no sharp edges that could damage the agricultural product. If using corrugated cardboard, ensure the flaps are glued or taped shut to prevent moisture infiltration. As part of the post-harvest handling process, the produce must be handled with care to prevent bruising and damage.
Consider packing produce in single-layer boxes, as less handling is required and, therefore, there is reduced risk of damage to produce during post-harvest processing. Over-packing can lead to excessive bruising and more rapid water loss. Additionally, be sure to follow any specific packing instructions provided by buyers or shippers.
3. Ensure Proper Pre-Cooling to Prolong Product Shelf Life
Proper pre-cooling is also a vital post-harvest technique to prolong a product’s shelf life. With strawberries, for instance, a cooling delay of 6 hours corresponds to a 50% reduction in marketability. Pre-cooling helps to reduce the internal temperature of products and extend shelf life.
Including various pre-cooling methods in your post-harvest handling process is a crucial step to take. The most effective pre-cooling methods include:
- Forced air cooling (within the storage room) – This method uses a fan to blow cold air over the product, but it requires post-harvest facilities that can properly maintain the type of temperature and humidity required for the process. This solution may not be practical or economical for small growers.
- Hydro cooling – This involves submerging the agricultural products in a large tub of chilled water for 30 minutes to an hour. After cooling, the product is placed on racks and allowed to drain before being transferred into bins or crates ready for storage.
- Icing – This is a very simple technique that can be used to cool agricultural products. All you need is ice and water. Icing can help reduce the internal temperature of the fruits or vegetables by almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit in just 15 minutes.
Keep in mind that wet products are more likely to allow the rapid growth of bacterial if not cooled properly. The storage temperature also matters and is often dependent upon the type of agricultural product you’re pre-cooling. The most critical temperature ranges to keep in mind for post-harvest handling include:
- Below 41°F to minimize any bacterial growth
- Bacteria grow most rapidly from 70 – 135°F.
Deciding on the optimum storage temperature for your products will also vary depending on the product’s respiration rate and whether or not the products are chill-sensitive. Choose the right pre-cooling technique for your specific product and storage conditions to get the most shelf life possible.
4. Ensure Proper Storage with Appropriate Temperature and Humidity
Improper storage and handling of produce can result in significant loss of product quality and quantity due to microbial growth or pest infestation. As you plan for the post-harvest handling of your produce, ensure that you have a clean storage area with the appropriate temperature and humidity.
- Temperature – The ideal storage temperature for most produce is between 36-40 degrees Fahrenheit. However, this depends on the type of produce.
- Humidity – The ideal humidity for most produce is 95-100%. Some fruits and vegetables are best stored at a slightly lower humidity (85-90%). Maintaining an appropriate level of humidity in your storage area is critical for preventing produce from shriveling or wilting.
- Storage Length – Different types of produce have different storage lifespans. Be sure to research the appropriate storage time for your produce or consult a post-harvest handling expert.
There are many important factors that should also be considered when storing your produce as part of your post-harvest technique.
- Ensure that your storage area is separated from the processing area to avoid contamination
- Maintain clean and sanitary storage using good housekeeping practices
- Ensure that storage racks are away from walls to allow proper air circulation and easy cleaning
- Practice the tried and true “First-In,” “First-Out” approach for efficient inventory control
- Ensure that no product or packaging materials are stored on the floor
- Maintain a strict rodent control program and monitor your produce regularly for signs of spoilage or pests
- Monitor and maintain a record of storage temperature and humidity
- Ensure that the produce is properly packaged to avoid bruising and moisture loss
- Label all packages with the name of the product, the date it was harvested, and any other important information (e.g. “Refrigerate After Opening”). These records are critical for your post-harvest handling program and will help you to determine the best storage practices for your specific produce.
5. Choose Proper Transportation and Distribution to Avoid Damage and Risk of Contamination
To ensure that your products reach their destination safely and in the best condition possible, it is important to select an appropriate transportation method. When selecting a carrier, keep in mind the following: the weight of your product, the size of your product, the distance to be traveled, and the time of year.
To avoid product damage during this post-harvest handling step, products that are temperature sensitive should not be transported on open trucks for extended periods during the summer months, especially if they will be traveling long distances. You may choose to use your own truck or trailer for local transport, depending on how much product you need to move.
If your products are sensitive to temperature changes, consider a refrigerated vehicle for transporting them safely and efficiently. A good rule of thumb for this post-harvest handling step is to pack products so that there is a consistent temperature throughout the vehicle. This will help avoid damage and minimize the risk of contamination.
During product distribution, you’ll want to keep these post-harvest techniques in mind:
- Take precautions to help minimize the risk of microbial contamination during transit
- Pay attention to all food contact surfaces and keep them clean to avoid cross-contamination
- Use a temperature recorder to monitor temperatures during transport so you know exactly how cold or hot they get while being transported from one place to another
- Make sure you have enough cold storage for your products – this post-harvest handling step will help you determine how much storage capacity is needed
Avoid using transport vehicles that were used to move livestock, poultry, or other animals, as this can pose a risk to the quality and safety of your products. In order to ensure that you’re following all the necessary safety protocols, consult your local food regulatory agency for more information on transporting and distributing your products.
6. Follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs)
Standardized GMPs ensure that your company or farm is following appropriate procedures for handling and storing food. This post-harvest handling step helps to reduce the risk of contamination by pathogens, chemicals, or allergens. GMPs are guidelines established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food producers to help prevent illness from contaminated products and protect consumers from mislabeling on food products.
Here are some good practices to keep in mind:
- Any building where post-harvest activities take place should be designed, constructed, and maintained to protect food from contamination.
- Equipment and utensils used in post-harvest must be cleaned and sanitized before and after use.
- Food contact surfaces (cutting boards, countertops, etc.) must be clean and sanitized after each use.
- A supply of potable water should be available on the farm for washing hands, as required by GMPs.
- Water quality in your post-harvest handling facility should be regularly monitored.
- Employees must practice proper personal hygiene and wear clean clothing when working in post-harvest facilities.
By following these best practices, you can help ensure the safety of your food products. Of course, post-harvest techniques vary from facility to facility depending on the type of product you’re handling, the climate, and other factors. So be sure to consult with your local agricultural extension office or food safety specialist for specific recommendations.
Learn More at Fruit Growers Supply
Proper post-harvest handling is key to preserving the quality and freshness of your fruits and vegetables. For more information on how to properly handle your produce and ensure optimal shelf life, be sure to check out more informative resources at Fruit Growers Supply. At Fruit Gowers Supply, we provide an extensive selection of quality agricultural supplies and post-harvest supplies and equipment to help you get the most from your produce.
Want to learn more? We offer free consultations and would be happy to help you get started. Contact us today.