How Farmers Harvest & Deliver Their Crops

The harvesting of crops happens year-round in many parts of the world; here in Wisconsin though, what we call “harvest season” is typically known as early summer through late fall. That’s when our produce department’s selection of locally grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs gets really good, and it’s when our local growers are usually the busiest because their hard work during the spring planting season is finally bearing fruit. Harvesting in its simplest definition is the process by which farmers gather ripe crops from the fields, but when people think of it now, they often consider it to encompass the farm’s entire reaping, cleaning, packing, storing, and delivery operation. If you’ve ever wondered how this process of getting fresh foods from the ground to our shelves works, here’s a brief breakdown.

One of the first tasks farmers do during harvest season is make note of when each crop should be plucked from its home. They make these decisions based on ripeness, which varies by crop, and they learn how to tell when each is ready by examining its characteristics as it grows, such as color, size, or sheen. Other factors that influence harvest times are when the crop should be eaten or what the weather will be like. For example, the culinary harvest, or the time when a crop reaches peak tenderness and flavor, can be different than its biological maturity, so farmers take that into consideration as well.

Once the farmer decides the time is right, next comes harvesting. How crops are harvested depends on the type and quantity of the product as well as the size of the farm, but in general, there are three main methods: harvesting by hand, harvesting with hand tools, and harvesting with machinery. Hand harvesting is exactly as it sounds; the farmer manually gathers the fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains, etc., that they grew using only their hands. Harvesting with hand tools is similar in that it’s also done manually,  but the farmer uses a few tools to help, such as a sickle, reaper, axe, or gandasa. And harvesting with machinery is a process modern farmers use to gather large quantities of crops. An example of this is when grain farmers use combines to cut and clean the grains simultaneously, saving them hundreds of hours in labor. Speaking of cleaning, some crops need more love than just picking them, too. Many need stalks or husks removed so only the edible portion makes it to market.

However the crop was harvested and cleaned, it usually has to be delivered to its final destination pretty soon after. If the farmer is headed to an area farmer’s market or offers CSA shares, they typically pack up the harvest the day before or the morning of and store it in boxes in a cooler. At our stores, CSA share dropoffs end up in our produce cooler, and customers return the CSA boxes to us to be passed back to the farms each week. If the farmer will be supplying our produce department with crops, they set up delivery times with our buyers. Our delivery schedules for local farms especially are fairly flexible, and we do our best to accommodate the needs of the farm. If their crops are sold at both locations, some will drop off individual deliveries at each, while others prefer to drop off a bigger delivery at one of the stores instead of making two trips. In these instances, we transfer the product to the other store on our delivery van’s next trip.

There’s certainly more to the process of harvesting, but hopefully, you have a little more insight now into the methods local suppliers use to get their food from the farm to your table. Thank them for this hard work as often as you can!

This article was originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.

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