Ray Tyler Lettuce Series 09 – Harvesting and Packing to Maximize Sales

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Episode Summary

The Ray Tyler Lettuce Series is a new podcast mini-series hosted by Diego Footer and farmer Ray Tyler to take a deep dive into the technicalities of growing lettuce—from why lettuce is a farm staple to how to master growing the crop consistently to how to effectively market lettuce to maximize profits.

In this episode of The Lettuce Series, Ray and Diego talk about what goes behind the post-harvest processing for lettuce, both loose leaf salad mixes and head lettuce varieties. Ray also talks about skipping the wash step when they prepare their freshly harvested lettuce for market.

This Episode’s Guest: Ray Tyler

Ray Tyler is the farmer and owner of Rosecreek Farms, a financially successful one-acre market garden nestled in Tennessee. Ray Tyler is also an educator who has helped many farms become more profitable through his coaching services. He also offers his services in the form of his three courses: The Living Farm Course, Caterpillar Tunnel Success, and of course, his Lettuce Masterclass.


Relevant Links

            The Farmer’s Guide To Growing Organic Lettuce by Ray Tyler

            Ray Tyler’s Lettuce Masterclass

            Paperpot Co.’s Kwik Hoops


In this episode of The Lettuce Series

  • Diego introduces the episode on harvesting and packaging lettuce (00:30)
  • The main keys to successfully harvesting, packing, and storing lettuce (01:38)
  • customer reception of unwashed lettuce (04:39)
  • Where quality control happens in Rosecreek Farms (05:52)
  • Single harvest off lettuces for maximum quality (07:50)
  • Hand harvesting versus using the quick cut greens harvester (09:50)
  • Say goodbye to sandbags forever with Kwik Hoops (10:27)
  • Post-harvest process for loose leaf lettuce and salad mixes (12:20)
    • Keeping the bags looking full helps with the sales (15:02)
  • Packing head lettuce for market (15:35)
  • How much lettuce Rosecreek Farms washes in a year (17:35)
  • Money savings by skipping the washing step (18:20)
  • Growing a cleaner crop to eliminate the need for washing (20:44)
  • GAP certification and washing produce (21:50)

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Ray Tyler Lettuce Series - Episode 9 - Harvesting and Packing to Maximize Sales

[00:00:00] Diego Footer: Welcome to Farm Small Farm Smart. I'm your host, Diego. DIEGO. Today, it's episode number nine in the Lettuce Grower Series. This series is and has been a deep dive into growing lettuce really well. We picked lettuce because it's a profitable crop that's easy to sell, making it an ideal cash flow crop for a small farm.

[00:00:30] And episode nine, as we start to wrap up the series, we're coming to the end of a lettuce�s lifecycle on the farm, so we're talking, harvesting, and packing to maximize sales. You've done all the work to grow a great lettuce crop. How do you get it from the field to the customer in the best condition possible?

[00:00:52] All the work that you've done for the previous 40 to 60 days can go out the window pretty quickly if you don't pay attention in these last few steps, it's getting it over the one yard line to score the touchdown. In this episode, Ray's gonna go over strategies to get the most from your harvest, as well as packing tips to help maximize sales.

[00:01:17] To learn more beyond the series, be sure to check out Ray's book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce, which I've linked to in the notes below. Now, it's episode number nine, harvesting and packing to Maximize Sales. Let's get into it. Today, it's the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce.

[00:01:38] We're in chapter eight, harvesting and packing. So by now, people have learned how to grow great lettuce crops. They've spent a lot of time doing that. They have amazing lettuce in the field. How do you keep it looking amazing all the way to the customer? What are the main keys to a successful harvest, pack, and storage?

[00:02:05] Ray Tyler: How we kind of practice this on the farm is one, we're harvesting the lettuce ideally before 8:00 AM, no later than 10. We'd also like to harvest the lettuce as dry as possible. Then as soon as that's getting harvested, which needs to be done with a sharp, clean knife, we found that if it's dull or if it's dirty, it can lead to oxidization of the ends of your lettuce.

[00:02:42] And so I think it's important that you have a really, razor sharp knife. Then it goes to the walk-in cooler as soon as possible. That's set at 35 degrees. No warmer than 40. It needs to be at that 35, 38-degree mark. Really speaking, what we're doing is we're only washing this if it absolutely has to be washed.

[00:03:11] We found that anytime we wash lettuce, it tends to decrease the shelf life. So if like head lettuce, we don't wash it, occasionally get like a hole in a tunnel or something happened, maybe we'll have to wash it. And that's always a bad day for the pack shed team, it takes such a long time. But on the salad mix, the same thing there.

[00:03:37] If we're using the five row Jang, normally we don't have to wash that. So we wanna make sure that it's dry, that it�s clean. Most of the time, if we use the Netafim misters, it's a very gentle watering, so they can gently keep the greens fairly clean, and we're harvesting it a couple inches above the ground anyways.

[00:04:04] Then as long as that's dry, it goes right to the cooler. The next day, that will get packed in a climate-controlled pack shed. We used to pack in like a shed that had no AC and it just�that was really tough on the greens. So as soon as it was packed, it went back to the cooler and then it just stayed there until it went out to the market or whatever customer. So the basic key is just making sure that lettuce stays as cold, clean, and dry as possible.

[00:04:39] Diego Footer: For selling lettuce unwashed, any issues with that with customers or are they accepting of that?

[00:04:44] Ray Tyler: Yep. We do not tell them that it's clean, so we're just honest. Yes, so this has not been washed. Most people wash their produce anyways.

[00:04:58] The way I look at our whole system is that if we're doing a step that is not gonna add value to a sale, I don't wanna do it. So it all comes down to that. We've had to do some things with packaging, �cause that was the only way we could sell it. And so if I ran into a problem, like if my customer�s told me, I'm not gonna buy this unless you wash it, then I'm gonna wash it.

[00:05:22] But I wanna push that envelope like as hard as I can because anytime we have to touch that lettuce one more time, it's decreasing our profits. So, if our lettuce is physically dirty and muddy, no one's gonna buy that. So we will wash it. But for the most part, because we've grown on fabric and tunnels, and we use these Netafim misters, things are very clean.

[00:05:52] Diego Footer: One place people use wash pack for�one step people use wash pack for is QC-ing, pulling out bad leaves, stuff like that. Are you QC-ing in the field? So when somebody harvests their, I�d say head lettuce, they're removing bad leaves there, or is that done after you bring it into the cooler and gets packed?

[00:06:10] Ray Tyler: Both. So let's just say that there's a bad spot of disease. Let's just say if they're, we have salad mix, we direct seated, or maybe some salanova had some diseases, that is getting avoided and skimmed around in the field. So that's on the harvester's job to make sure that they're giving a very clean, high-quality product at purchase.

[00:06:36] The post-harvest, they're what we call the last line of defense, right? So, they're like, they stay in between the production team, the field team, and the customer. So they have to be a lot more attuned, like in case a mistake gets made. But we're not putting over a table and going through it like, it's a high-quality product, like everyone is trained to know, especially in our production team, like we have to grow the cleanest, healthiest, weed-free as possible because our pack-shed team doesn't have enough time to go through it.

[00:07:18] So there'll be times, where if we feel like we're gonna spend a considerable amount of time going through a bed, or if we're gonna harvest it, and it's rough, I'll just tell the team to compost it. It's just not worth spending an hour or two going through weeds or yellow leaves. Again, what we're trying to do is we're trying to have a consistent, high-quality crop that doesn't need a lot of post-harvest work.

[00:07:50] Diego Footer: In terms of harvesting, clean, sharp knife, that's gonna be for your head lettuces, salanova. Everything else, the loose leaf mix, can get harvested with the quick cut greens harvester, real easy. Are most of your lettuces at this point, are you multi-harvesting or one and done-ing?

[00:08:13] Ray Tyler: One and done. Very strong about that. We could get two to three cuts, but we are very�so again, this is the whole system on sales, and that is we wanna offer a consistent, high-quality product.

[00:08:34] And anytime you aim to get that second cut, it does seem like the chances of bad leaves or disease happening tends to increase. What I have found is that the longer a crop is in the field, the more chances of problems arising, whether that be pest, diseases, weeds, et cetera. So it's, Hey, we're gonna get one cut.

[00:09:06] Yeah, if we were to wait two weeks, I would say maybe we could get another 20 pounds. But by the time we crop that out and plan something else, we could have had a higher yield of some other kind of crop. And we're also looking for a consistent quality. I just found, especially in the summertime, the best second and third cut even the flavor tends to be stronger. So just to keep it simple, one and done, move on. Yeah. I'm sure we're moving some, leaving some money on the table, but it has not fit into our system efficiently.

[00:09:50] Diego Footer: Same harvesting process, winter and summer?

[00:09:54] Ray Tyler: Yep. Same thing. Occasionally in a high tunnel, if we're growing a crop, we have more time to harvest. We can get 8, 8, 10 pounds more per bed if we hand harvest versus a greens harvester. So if we feel like it's worth the time, which rarely, we don't feel like it's worth that time, but sometimes it is.

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[00:12:20] So greens harvester, crop comes off the field, goes into the cooler, you start removing the field heat off of it. And you're in your post-harvest setup. Take me from that step to getting in the bag.

[00:12:34] Ray Tyler: If it was done with the greens harvester, most likely that does not need to be washed. So we take the tote, and we like for that field heat, we like for that harvested crop to be in the cooler for a full 24 hours. So we're handling a cold crop, not�we don't want to extend the time that that crop is warm.

[00:12:58] We want to keep cold. We want to bring that temperature down as fast as possible so that when it comes out the next day in a climate-controlled facility, it's not gonna be above 70. Once that's done, we essentially have that bin that came from the field, and it's clean. We're not gonna wash it. So then we have our two bags, what we call popcorn bags.

[00:13:25] They've been pre-labeled, whether it be salad mix, spinach, arugula, whatever that's been. And we have two different sizes. I'm about to change it to a third size, but right now we have a third pound bag and a one-pound bag. And there's reasons for that, which we'll get into in sales. But we have a scale, and we're just there.

[00:13:48] We have one bag in one hand, one bag that's free to fill it up and generally speaking, when you do a couple hundred of these a week, you have a good sense of how much it weighs, and you could probably watch, like Sarah, she's in the pack shed now, probably bagging lettuce, guarantee you, almost every time is on the money.

[00:14:12] The way we weigh this is it's a third pound plus, right? So maybe let's say it's five and a half ounces for the third pound bag, and if it's six, good enough, as long as it's not below five and a half ounces. Same thing with the one-pounders. Sixteen ounces plus at the 17, move it, like it's good enough. So what can happen is a lot of times once you get in that habit, you can really guess pretty accurately.

[00:14:45] Then once that's done, they're twisting the bag. They're tying a few times, and it goes into our market cabinet. That rolls into the walking cooler, market day that rolls into our trailer. You roll it out the market, and it sells from that market cabinet.

[00:15:02] Diego Footer: Is part of the strategy of those popcorn bags, you try and keep a little air in the bag, shake it up a little, give it that voluminous look to it?

[00:15:11] Ray Tyler: Yes. Yep. Exactly. Especially for the third pound �cause it can settle a good bit. The one-pound stays pretty full. Like there's a lot of lettuce mix in that one-pound bag. But yeah, it's nice to have kind of the air. It does really help with the overall sales.

[00:15:31] Diego Footer: For head lettuce, how does that get packaged up to go to market?

[00:15:35] Ray Tyler: We used to sell that loose on the booth, but then a new market that we tried to sell to, they did not like it loose. They want it in a bag, which we did not like �cause that increased our post-harvest labor.

[00:15:56] But what we found out, this kind of bleeds a little bit into sales, but what was happening is we were only selling maybe 25 heads of lettuce a week at the market, which was terrible. I need to sell a few hundred. Once we put 'em into bags, and we labeled them with our just black and white laser, just easy label.

[00:16:18] We had a variety. So let's say with panisse lettuce or butter lettuce or greenleaf, whatever it was, our farm information, then we were able to increase our sales to 400 heads of lettuce a week simply by putting 'em in bags. Now, the market that we were at, they loved it loose. They didn't it want to be in bags.

[00:16:38] So this is more�we're different in the sales thing, but it's really understanding what your customer, what they want. And what we did for that extra step is we raised the price a lot. Because it took a lot more time. So we raised the price from $3 a head to five.

[00:16:58] Diego Footer: Yeah. I think that's the thing to think about in all processes on the farm, every time somebody's touching something, that's adding costs. Yeah, exactly.

[00:17:04] So you either have to get more for it, or you go ask yourself, do I need to do this touch in the first place? Regulation, maybe the market demands it, whatever. Maybe it's just quality. I have to do that. So it's definitely considering that. You know, for washing the salad, that's one of those things that I've covered on a lot of different shows.

[00:17:26] There's extensive talk on it on the book in terms of the equipment, the tanks, the bubbler, all the drying stuff you use on page 141. But if you think about it, just not washing everything, over the course of a year, like what percentage of mix are you washing? Is it 10%, less than that?

[00:17:47] Ray Tyler: One thing that we do wash is if we mix�so this is the one, if we mix salanova with a direct seeded the salad mix, we do wash those two together.

[00:18:03] Diego Footer: You allow the bubbler to mix it up?

[00:18:04] Ray Tyler: Yeah, it's just, we used to try like mix dry in totes, but it's so much volume that it was just a lot easier to put half salad mix, half salanova in a bubbler, let the bubbles mix it, and then spin dry it.

[00:18:20] Diego Footer: Do you have any sense of how much you save by cutting out washing? Obviously, it's a lot of time. There's probably some pretty good money there, right?

[00:18:29] Ray Tyler: Yes. So I would say it takes them about an hour to wash and spin a hundred pounds of salad mix. So we're not talking like 10 hours here. But if you're doing three to 400 pounds a week, that does add up. You just freed yourself�someone got freed up a half a day.

[00:18:52] Diego Footer: Important to know those times. So you have some concept of what it�s costing us.

[00:18:56] Ray Tyler: That�s right. This is why on the cost sheets, it's very important that you know your time. Everyone is gonna be slower than some things than others. No one's gonna be as fast as me and my wife cause we're just� this is our business, and there's other things that we wanna do except for washing lettuce mix.

[00:19:15] But if you have an idea of like how long that takes, you then have some benchmarks of, okay, maybe it takes someone else times and a half. So instead of taking them an hour, it's an hour and a half versus, you know, maybe it would take Ash and I an hour.

[00:19:31] But in with our system, anyone can wash, after a few times of doing this, in an hour. What they have a hard time doing is packaging it at the same time. Like my wife, she can pack �cause there's this rhythm to this whole thing. You're bubbling, you're spinning, that goes into a clean tote, and you start the whole thing over.

[00:19:56] While you're waiting for those buckets to be spinning, you can be packing the lettuce that just got dumped out. So she can keep up and that whole hour is done. She's washed, spun, and bagged a hundred pounds of salad mix in one hour. Not everyone can do the bag part, that's like that extra level that she can squeeze in there.

[00:20:19] That just takes a little bit more time to learn that whole flow time. But you need to know though those times, if it's taking you two hours a day to wash salad mix, two hours for a hundred pounds, you're doing 400 pounds a week, that's a whole day for somebody that you could cut out simply by trying to grow a cleaner crop.

[00:20:44] Diego Footer: Yeah. It's not just, we're not gonna wash, it's, we've tried to eliminate washing by other measures that we've taken.

[00:20:51] Ray Tyler: For a specific reason. Right, right. There's a reason why we don't want to do this. Now, we can occasionally�and again, if you're mixing different crops, okay, it is easier to wash 'em together in that regard than try to like dry mix 'em.

[00:21:13] For the head lettuce, it takes a lot longer to wash head lettuce than it does salad mix. Because with head lettuce, we're like dunking one at a time. We stack a few in a spinner. It's a lot more fragile. That is the real time suck. Like, they've spent eight hours before washing, drying properly, bagging 400 headed lettuce before.

[00:21:38] Diego Footer: Call out for anybody who is spending a lot of time in wash pack is to look at that process and say, what steps are needed here? Could we do this a different way? Does our market demand it? Those types of questions.

[00:21:50] Ray Tyler: I was gonna add one more thing, since we're in the Wash and Pack thing, is if you want to go in the GAP certified direction, they like it when you don't wash anything.

[00:22:03] So think about that. If you look at California, when they're doing head lettuce, they're literally packing into boxes in the field. So GAP certification would rather you not wash anything �cause that is a potential for contaminating food-borne illnesses.

[00:22:23] Diego Footer: There's probably something in there, too, of the, you tell somebody it's washed, they think they can just eat it, where you wanna encourage them to wash it.

[00:22:33] There you have it, episode nine of the Lettuce Grower series. Thanks for listening to this one. For any tools and supplies referenced in this episode, please visit the show description below. There, you'll also find a link to Ray's book, the Farmer's Guide to Growing Organic Lettuce, as well as a signup link for Ray's lettuce masterclass.

[00:22:54] Those are two additional ways to go even deeper into growing better lettuce for your farm. If you enjoyed this episode, can you do me a favor and leave a review on iTunes? Search for Farm Small Farm Smart, and leave a five star review there. It only takes you a minute, but it really, really helps the show.

[00:23:16] So thanks for taking a minute to leave that review. I hope you enjoyed this episode, but more importantly, I hope you can use the information in this episode to make a major impact on your farm business and your life. We'll be back next week with the 10th and final episode in the series. Until then, thanks for listening.

[00:23:36] Be nice, be thankful, and do the work.

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