Growing and marketing produce are the hardest parts of market gardening, but in order to sell the fruits of your labor you need an effective and efficient way to store them. Food storage is a bit of an art form in itself, but all of the successful market gardeners and farmers I have known have these things in common.
A walk-in cooler is not essential for commercial success, but it certainly helps. Walk-in coolers are relatively easy and cheap to build, and there are several online plans to choose from. The benefits of a walk-in cooler are that they can be built almost anywhere and allow you a spacious storage option for your crops.
The quality of your storage bins matters. You will use these bins to store clean vegetables as well as dirty vegetables straight from the field. A sturdy storage bin can double as a harvest bin, and will ideally last you several years. Cheap plastic isn’t going to cut it, and will be a source of frustration. Your bins should stack and should all be roughly the same size to make organization easier. If you want different size bins, look for deep bins and shallow bins that can still stack on top of each other. You also want a bin that is easy to label, either with chalk or some other notation method, not to mention a handle. Lifting your bins shouldn’t break your back or hurt your fingers if you plan to use them on a regular basis. Ideally, your bins should also be rodent-proof.
My favorite harvest and storage bin is carried by Uline. Their bins have lids, nest and stack, are very durable, are easy to carry and clean, and are easy to label with chalk. They come in several different sizes and are definitely worth the investment.
Efficient Labeling System
It is possible to waste hours over the courses of a season trying to figure out what you stored where. Labeling, weighing, and dating your produce will save you a lot of trouble in the long run and will make it easy to locate that last bin of over-wintered carrots for market. There is no one perfect system, but make sure you have a system that works before you load your cooler.
Abbreviations make labeling quick and easy, and it is also a good idea log your harvest on paper as well as in the cooler. Label your bins with the name of the crop, the weight of the bin and the date, and market day will go much more smoothly.
Produce Grading System
“One bad apple spoils the bunch” is an accurate assessment when it comes to storage. Most market gardeners go through two grading processes: during harvest and during washing. If you carry produce over from market to market, then you probably grade your goods a third time to make sure the stress of market hasn’t damaged anything.
Damaged vegetables don’t store well, and that rot spreads quickly throughout the bin. Opening one bin of liquefied carrots is enough to put anyone off of their food, so take my word for it and aggressively grade out damaged produce from your yields.
Convenient Processing Station
Nobody wants to haul harvest bins all over the place any more than they have to. Placing your cooler near your processing station is convenient and saves you time and effort. It also makes your system more efficient.
Heavy bins are a health hazard to you and your employees (if you have any). 50 pounds is a healthy limit. Sure, you might be able to lift more than that, but repetitive heavy lifting comes with risks that gardeners can’t afford, like injury to the lower back.
As an example, I once worked for a very tall man who could easily lift 90-pound bags of root vegetables, and so he stored his veggies in 90-pound bags. I could not easily lift 90 pounds, and so I dreaded going into the cooler. It is important to realistically assess not only your own limits, but the limits of those around you.
Sturdy labeled bins full of top-quality produce won’t help you much if your cooler is a jumble of disorganized stacks. Figure out a system that works for your cooler and stick to it. If you attend multiple farmer’s markets per week, you might want to organize your cooler accordingly by stacking what you need for each market in one place.
Organized coolers also enable you to keep track of older produce, which can easily get buried over the course of the season. As you bring in new bins, be sure to cycle through the older produce and always stack heavy bins on the bottom to avoid injury.
The best system in the world won't do you much good if your cooler temperature is off. Once you have determined the optimal temperature for your crop, make sure you have an accurate thermometer installed on the inside of your cooler to verify that your cooler is keeping your crops at the proper temperature.
There is certainly more to storing vegetables for market than this short list, but these tips will allow you to make the most of your gardening expertise so that your produce and cooler stay organized and fresh.