Keeping your leafy vegetables fresh at the farmers’ market
Do you struggle to keep your greens looking great at your farmers market display? With spring temperatures rising in Florida, you are not alone. Even when you harvest early in the morning of the market day, or the day before; there are some veggies such as lettuce and other leafy greens and herbs that if not managed properly, could end up looking wilted at your farmers market display.
Most small farm operators or market gardeners don’t have the capital or space to invest in a walk-in cooler or other post-harvest equipment that they need. In this article we discuss simple ways in which you can keep your vegetables fresh. We focus on leafy greens and other vegetables that wilt very easily under hot Florida temperatures. The main source for this information is Dr. Steve Sargent, a Professor and Extension Post-harvest Specialist at the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida.
In terms of harvesting tips, field sanitation is a priority; which includes washing hands frequently and keeping harvest containers and tools clean. Place your freshly harvested vegetables on a container, not the soil. Dr. Sargent recommended to harvest either during the late afternoon or early in the morning, preferably early in the morning, as the vegetables are naturally cooled from the night temperatures.
Hydro-cooling: Using Ice water to cool your veggies
An easy way to cool your vegetables is to use a container such as an ice chest full of ice water. Dip your vegetables into the ice water. The ice water will cool and hydrate your veggies. “You want to see ice on the water; if there is no more ice, the temperatures are going too high and the cooling wont’ work,” said Dr. Sargent. Dip whole vegetables and keep them in there for around 5 minutes. The ice will be melting as you dip your veggies in, so to keep using this water, you will have to add more ice from time to time. Using this cooling technique will bring down the temperature of your vegetables. Using well water, which is usually cool, will help you on this. Next you need a good storage.
In order to keep using this ice water for your next batch of vegetables, you should use some sort of sanitizer to minimize any risk of contamination. Food grade chlorine is the one recommended. Chlorine is also allowed as a sanitizer for certified organic crop production. According to the Postharvest Handling of Fruits and Vegetables from ATTRA/NCAT, “chlorine in wash water should be maintained in the range of 75-150 ppm (parts per million). So for a targeted chlorine concentration of 100 ppm, you should add 1.1 ounces of sodium hypochlorite (5.25%) to 5 gallons of water. More details on those calculations check the ATTRA/NCAT publication, see below for reference.
Remember that we are focusing on leafy vegetables. Other veggies such as tomatoes, don’t need this kind of ice water cooling and will stay in very good conditions for a day or more. Other crops do well by manually putting crushed ice on top of the veggies. According to the Wholesale Success Manual from FamilyFarmed.org, icing is used in crops such as kale, spinach, collards, carrots and green onions.
Storing your Veggies
If you don’t have a formal walk-in cooler, the most practical way to store your leafy vegetables is using an ice chest. Dr. Sargent recommends putting ice at the bottom of the ice chest, and then putting some sort of material to separate the ice from your produce. This could be newspaper or cardboard. This will prevent ice damage, as the ice could freeze your veggies, damaging them. Alternatively, you can use frozen gel packs instead of ice. This will facilitate cleaning.
Another tip would be to use plastic bags to cover some vegetables for some hours, such as lettuces. This will trap humidity in the bag and benefit the cooling of your vegetable. This can be a problem if you keep it in there for days, but it should not be a problem for one day.
Displaying your Veggies on Market Day
For leafy vegetables, you are better off putting a few samples of your produce on the farmer market display, and keeping the bulk of your produce on the ice storage chests. Whenever the consumer asks to buy some of those, you can go and get it for them. Another alternative is to actually display your veggies while they are still in the cooler.
Another idea is to keep some of your vegetable in water containers while on display. This could work well with species such as lettuce, collard greens, either root and cut item. This won’t work on individual leaves such as spinach leaves.
Spraying water into your vegetables from time to time while on display is also a good idea. Just make sure that the water contains some chlorine on it.
Other tips from Brenda Gibbons from Gibbons Organic Farm in Fort Pierce
Once harvested our produce does not stay in the field, it goes directly to our packing shed, and then immediately into the coolers.
If you use bags for your veggies, don’t seal the bags.
Protect your greens from the wind as much as possible, as this will dehydrate them.
When displaying at farmers markets, don’t put all your veggies out, just enough. You can keep replenishing as your produce gets sold.
Use re-usable ice packs, if our farm was using ice we would use 60-100 pounds of ice every week, which would be expensive and messy.
- Wholesale Success: The Guide to selling, Postharvest Handling, and Packing Produce. Jim Slama. http://www.familyfarmed.org/publications/wholesalesuccess/
- Postharvest Handling of Fruits and Vegetables. ATTRA/NCAT. 2000. IP116 https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=378
- Direct Marketing and Quality Control. UC Small Farm Program. http://sfp.ucdavis.edu/pubs/Family_Farm_Series/Marketing_556/directmk-qual/