Consider location, layout, materials, more when designing efficient pack shed
By Jason Grimm
As produce growers, we are deep into the season; fall crops are planted, and harvest is a daily task. At this time of year, your pack shed’s layout can be an asset or an everyday burden to get a crop clean, packed, and ready for our customers. The pack-shed design is just as important as laying out our farms’ fields, field roads, headlands, and annual crop plans. Good pack-shed design takes into consideration flow of product, surfaces, and material handling.
Location, Location, Location
Before building or setting up a washing and packing area it is important to consider having this space centrally located along a consistent route of travel. Be sure you have access to potable water and possibly electricity. If you have a cooler or refrigerator, consider putting it near or inside your pack shed to reduce transporting clean produce to another location on your farm.
Having a designated area for washing and packing means you do not need to set it up before each washing and packing session. It is important to have a designated area that is always set up to reduce the chance we might skip a step.
Barns, garages, machine sheds, and other structures on the farm all can make great pack sheds. Before you consider repurposing your old barn, it is important to assess the previous uses of the structure to ensure nothing would contaminate your product or be harmful to workers in the space. Old structures on the farm typically were never well lit. As a result, you might need to consider adding more lighting or translucent roofing so that natural light can enter your washing and packing area.
The washing and packing area does not need to be enclosed, but it should have a roof over it while you are washing and packing produce. If you do not want to build a roof, use some type of canopy or tarp to keep out birds or other animals.
When you are planning your pack shed, design it around a linear flow of product to improve efficiency, while reducing strain on workers. Have dirty produce from the field enter at one end and clean produce come out of your wash pack line at the other end. This setup reduces the chance you’ll re-contaminate your product after you have cleaned it.
Pack-shed flooring should be concrete or some type of decking that allows you to move product with pallet jacks, a dolly, or some type of cart to save your back. Make a point to never carry just one box to the walk-in cooler, but instead as many will fit on the cart! Install ramps in the space and even into the cooler. Be sure that doorways are wide enough so you won’t bump and bruise your fingers or elbows.
To make cleanup faster, and maybe even enjoyable, think through how you’ll manage water in your packing space—you’ll be using a lot of water to wash produce and clean your workspace. You might pour a concrete floor and install drains, or simply capture water in some type of container before pumping or discharging it out of your packing area.
For walls, use dairy board and other melamine-type boards from your local hardware store. These white boards brighten up the space. You can also hose them down quickly.
Another surface in your pack shed to pay close attention to are your harvest and packing containers.
I cannot stress the benefits of food-grade containers. Many farmers still are using Rubbermaid or similar brand containers to harvest, store, and deliver product. Food-grade plastics are much denser and do not gouge as easily. Gouges provide places for harmful bacteria and other pathogens to grow and contaminate product.
Surfaces also may include tools and gloves. Use color-coding to distinguish uses, such as green brushes to clean produce, red brushes to clean the floor and other dirty jobs. If you use reusable gloves for washing product, allow them to air dry between uses after cleaning them with soap and water.
As you design the flow of your pack shed, consider what type of crops you are growing and the different processes to clean and pack those crops. Some crops, such as kale, lettuce, or greens, will probably be dunked into a series of tubs to wash and sanitize them before packing them in their final box or container. For root crops, you will either be using washing equipment or a spray table to rinse all the soil off the crop before final packing. Ideally, you would organize your pack shed so that you have stations set up for each of the groups of crops that are washed similarly.
Another station that should always be kept separate is a handwashing station. Install a sink or set up a jug of water with a spigot for staff to wash their hands. Be sure you have soap and single-use towels with your handwashing station as well.
It is important to consider where produce will be stored when it comes from the field. Keep it off the ground and away from produce that is already clean. Consider where you will keep clean, new packing containers such as boxes, bags, clamshells, twist ties, etc. Keep these new packing materials away from water, off the floor and away from pests, and covered so that they do not collect dust.
Lastly, while designing and thinking about your washing and packing space, visit other farms to see their sheds. You may search online for videos of packing sheds, too. The USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Good Handling Practices audit checklist is worth reviewing even if you don’t plan to pursue GAP Certification. The checklist can serve as a great reminder of best food safety practices. The checklist is online as a PDF here: http://bit.ly/GAPchecklist; part 3 beginning on page 14 covers packing houses.
Jason Grimm is Food Systems Director for Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D). He owns Grimm Family Farm in North English, Iowa.
He will present a workshop on Finding and Accessing Markets at the New Farmer U, Nov. 10-12, 2017 in Montour, Iowa.
From the September | October 2017 Issue