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Plan the perfect packing shed

publication date: Nov 30, 2002
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By Lynn Byczynski

A packing shed is an essential part of any produce or flower farm. Depending on the size of the farm, the packing shed may be as rudimentary as a laundry tub or table under a canopy or as sophisticated as a separate building with automated equipment and a loading dock.
In any case, the design of the packing shed requires careful consideration if it is to be an efficient and pleasant workplace. Trying to find models of great packing sheds, Growing for Market sent out emails to a large number of growers with the subject line “Love your packing shed?” Most people wrote back to say they most definitely did NOT love their packing sheds. “It’s a disaster and an embarrassment,” one experienced farmer frankly replied. Clearly, this is an area of the farm that bears closer scrutiny.
We did receive some good advice from growers, though, and we’ll pass it on to you with the suggestion that if you hate your packing shed, winter would be a good time to tackle improvements.

Converted barns
The luckiest growers are those who already have solid barns to provide shelter for a washing and packing area. Dairy barns are especially good, because most have concrete floors and gutters or drains that can be hosed down. Kevin and Charuth Loth of Lincoln, Nebraska, converted their dairy barn into an immaculately clean packing shed by covering the walls with food-grade plastic wallboard and epoxy paint, which is also washable, and installing their cooler near the milk tanks where produce is washed.
John Zehrer of Star Valley Flowers, is the owner of the beautiful barn shown on Page 1. Part of the barn has been divided off into a pleasant packing room with a concrete floor and long tables where workers can bunch and pack the flowering branches and other woody ornamentals grown at Star Valley. It has ample room for shipping boxes and packing materials. Near the exit is a door into a spacious cooler. Just outside, but still under the roof, is an open-air area with bucket washers, bucket storage, and a loading dock.

Greenhouses
In winter, when the barn is not so pleasant, Star Valley employees move to a greenhouse for packing flowers. The greenhouse is not used for growing plants; John found it to be an inexpensive structure to use as a packing shed.
Tom Elmore of Thachmore Farms in Leicester, North Carolina, uses a 30-foot hoophouse covered in clear plastic. He described his simple but efficient system: “Our crew of four or five brings the bread trays of harvested greens in one end and places them on a long table. The packers are on both sides of a laundry tub at the other end of that table. The bread trays work their way down the table as the greens are bunched, washed, packed, and labeled. The packed boxes sit in the shade until the pick-up hauls them to the walk-in cooler within an hour or so. The packing shed also keeps rain off supplies and provides a parking area for tillers and mowers.
“Greenhouse tomatoes are packed in the greenhouse on a long table along one end. Other crops like okra, squash and apples are field packed. We only recently started selling salad mix but I really like the net bag system that I believe we got from Growing for Market. We cut the mix into the net bag which lines a box in the field. The full bag is dunked into the laundry tub and mixed by hand. It’s dried by spinning the bag around the harvester’s head about ten times. The crew and our neighbors find this part of the process fairly entertaining.”

Starting from scratch
If you could build a new building specifically for post-harvest handling of your crops, what would it look like? Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farm in Graham, North Carolina, had that opportunity. They built a 20x20 foot building with an attached 10x20 foot open-air porch. The wet area, with the washing tank and screen drying table, are on the porch section. So is bucket storage and the door to the walk-in cooler. Inside, the dry area, there is a kitchen, tables for bouquet making, shelves for storing farmers’ market baskets and tables, and a bathroom. The packing shed has concrete floors with floor drains, both inside and out.
Waxed boxes are kept in another shed where it’s more convenient to stop on the way to the field to retrieve them. This year, the Hitts are adding a 12x30 addition to the packing shed to accommodate a second cooler and more storage. There’s never enough room.

Maybe you can’t build a dream packing shed this year. Nevertheless, there are many inexpensive improvements you might be able to make. Here is a list of the features growers consider important in creating the ideal packing shed:

•Location. The packing shed should be close to the fields so harvested produce can be moved quickly to the postharvest area. It also should be accessible by whatever vehicle is going to transport the produce off the farm. A loading dock that matches the height of the truck will minimize back strain when loading.
•Space. How much space would be ideal? It depends on what you grow and what other storage buildings are available to you. At a minimum, you need sinks or tubs for washing produce and tables for sorting, banding, bagging and boxing. You need a place for your scale. You want to put your cooler nearby to save steps after you have finished packaging. You want a place to store your boxes, bags, rubber bands and twist ties.
Some growers might need a place to hang garlic or onions, or a place to cure winter squash or sweet potatoes.
Work stations should be close enough that steps aren’t wasted going back and forth, but they should allow fanny room for two or more people to work together. And of course you can never have too many tables or shelves.

•Light. Good lighting is important because it allows you to spot defects in your produce or flowers when grading or culling. Karen Gast, a postharvest specialist at Kansas State University, says the worst kind of lighting is cool white fluorescent, because it makes things look too good. For inspecting produce, you want light that shows every flaw. SP-30 fluorescent or tungsten halogen quartz are much better.
From a mental health perspective, try to get plenty of daylight into the packing shed. There’s nothing worse than having to spend the day in a cold, dark barn washing salad mix. Clean windows or big doors that open wide can help alleviate that feeling of isolation. One grower reported that she had built a pole barn with translucent “skylight” roof panels, available from most pole barn manufacturers. She was amazed at what a big improvement the skylights made in the atmosphere of her shed.

•Surfaces. The best flooring for a packing shed is concrete because it allows you to use wheeled carts, hand trucks or even a pallet jack to move boxes of produce. Concrete should be poured so that it slopes toward a 6-inch drain, for easy washing of the floor. Walls can be washable, too, if painted with epoxy paint.

•Cleanliness. Sanitation is important in produce packing sheds, to prevent food-borne illness. The single biggest cause of produce contamination by pathogens is the handler’s hands. The perfect situation would be to have a bathroom with hot running water in the packing shed so employees could wash their hands before touching food. But where that isn’t possible, employees should be required to wash up elsewhere, then sanitize hands in the packing shed. A chlorine hand dip of 1/4 cup bleach per gallon of water is recommended.
Wash tubs and other surfaces likely to contact produce should be washed regularly, so it makes sense to use materials that are easily cleaned, such as seamless tubs and smooth counters.
Another important and easily accomplished goal is to protect produce packaging from mice and other vermin. Plastic bags and box liners can be kept in sealed storage containers.

•Water. Wash water must be potable (safe to drink). According to the Good Agricultural Practices manual produced by USDA and FDA for produce farms, dipping produce for one to two minutes in water chlorinated with 50 to 200 ppm chlorine will kill most pathogens. If produce is submerged in a dump tank, the water should be changed regularly to prevent the spread of pathogens from one crop to the next. Chlorine also becomes inactive when it binds with organic materials, so wash water especially needs to be changed when dumping crops with a lot of soil on them, such as root crops.
Removing water is just as important as getting it to the packing shed. Plan for drainage, however you organize your wash station. Local governments may require that wash water be put through a septic system, but don’t make the mistake of hooking it up to your home’s septic. The huge amount of water you use in the packing shed will overwhelm your septic system. Most growers just run the water from the packing shed off to a garden area or storage tank where it can be used to water plants.

•Ergonomics. Workstation heights should suit the workers. According to the Healthy Farmers, Healthy Profits Project at the University of Wisconsin, the most efficient work table height is halfway between wrist and elbow, measured when the arm is held down at the worker’s side. For heavier items, it is slightly lower.

•Work flow. The most efficient layout for the packing shed avoids extra steps and crossed paths. It also moves produce in the direction of the worker’s leading hand (left to right for right-handed people).
The Healthy Farmers project suggests these considerations when designing the work flow: Do all crops need to be washed? Do some need to be sprayed and others to be dunked? Could you run side-by-side task lines into a shared workstation where boxes are packed? Or circular work stations that intersect at the shared workstation. Could you use some sections of roller table?

Bargain shopping
Winter is a great time to hunt for packing shed improvements. Check at restaurant supplies and auctions, flea markets, cabinet builders and home improvement stores. You’re likely to find a gold mine of castoff or damaged sinks, tables, tubs, counter tops, screens, shelving and other objects that will make your work easier next year.❦

Resources
The two university recommendations cited in this article were taken from these publications:
•Packing Facilities for Fruits and Vegetables by Karen L.B. Gast, Kansas State University, www.oznet.ksu.edu/library/hort2/samplers/mf2322.asp
•Work Efficiency Tip Sheet: Packing Shed Layout by the Healthy Farmers, Healthy Profits project at University of Wisconsin, http://bse.wisc.edu/hfhp.

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