By Josh Volk
Originally published April 1, 2018
Like all of you, I’m always trying to make little improvements around the farm, and I’m never finding enough time to try all of my ideas. Last year I had the opportunity to rebuild the packing area at Cully Neighborhood Farm (CNF) and to also build three prototype pieces of furniture for a new packing shed at the North Willamette Research and Education Center (NWREC) for their small demonstration farm and to try out some of my ideas.
Both of these farms were looking to create functional packing sheds with limited budgets, small spaces, and for very diverse vegetable production on a small scale. An additional challenge, common to many small farms, was limited water at both sites (about 10 gpm and 55 psi) and no access to electricity. Both farms commonly have just one person working in the pack shed at a time, but might have three or more during peak times.
CNF has been using a simple, small pole structure, about 10x20’ for much of the history of the farm. The structure has no walls, but a metal gable roof provides some protection from the sun and rain, and it’s built in a relatively shady corner of the farm which also helps keep it cooler. The floor of the structure is just wood chips and soil that has been compacted over time. For years the farm had been relying on a simple hardware cloth covered spray table, an old bathtub propped up on a wooden frame for soaking greens, and a few folding tables covered with oilcloths. Of course the water and soil just drained onto the ground creating inevitable mud puddles to stand in, and the legs of the tables tended to sink into the soil over time, but it was a serviceable setup, and one that I see variations of on quite a few farms.
A spray table, wash tub, and packing table are the three basic pieces of pack shed furniture I see, and use, most commonly on small farms. They are simple, functional, and extremely versatile. For CNF we decided to use the poles of the structure and to build a fixed system that was similar to the layout the farm had been using for many years, but one that would be more ergonomic. That layout was pretty tried and true at that point, and using the existing poles meant not having to build legs which saved a little on cost and also opened up the space beneath the tables making it easier to put down more chips and to hoe out weeds when needed.
The very heavy cast iron tub still sits on its stand but we moved that to the back, because it is the least used piece. We also finally plumbed a simple tub drain with an integrated plug to drain the water away from the wash area into a trench behind the shed. This cost less than $20 in plumbing, keeps the working space dry, and saves time looking for the plug. We also used ¾” distribution tubing to plumb a fill hose that hangs above the tub. The fill hose has to be manually turned on and off, but we no longer have to drag a hose over and figure out how to prop it in the tank as it fills. It’s also much safer from a food safety standpoint as the fill hose never touches the ground so the risk of contaminating the water is much lower. The fill hose is also flexible so we can use it to spray down and clean out the corners of the tub between uses. The return on investment (ROI) for something like that is hard to put a dollar number to, but we’re definitely saving time filling the tub every day, and not standing in a mud puddle all afternoon is a big step up in quality of life.
The author’s adjustable-height washing sink, with detail showing the stainless steel grate that can be added to use it as a spray table.
For the spray table I replaced the hardware cloth top with a stepped, slatted bench. The center section is made from 4’ lath, which I’ve been using as a wash surface for years and really like for its low price, ease of installation and maintenance, soft feel and compostable nature when it’s life is over. Raw wood wears surprisingly well but it’s a little controversial; some folks prize its natural anti-microbial nature, and others look at it as a porous, hard to clean and sanitize surface that probably won’t be accepted by GAP or FSMA inspectors.
The lath bench has a number of subtle design features that I appreciate when I’m washing roots, or really anything on the table. There’s a slight lip at the front edge to keep items from rolling onto my feet. I put a tall back splash on to keep things from rolling off the back. There’s no lip on the sides, but there are stepped down benches where I can put totes flush up against the bench, dirty on one side, clean on the other, and then move the dirty product across the bench and slide it right off into the clean tote. The orientation of the lath helps with that, and the 4’ length is just about an arm span so it’s enough space to work with, but not so much that I have to travel much to get from the dirty side to the clean side.
For spraying I have two options. I have a hanging hose that will reach any corner of the bench and is great for cleaning the bench after I’m finished with a crop. It’s short enough that it never touches the ground and I can flip it behind the bench and out of the way when I’m not using it, but it’s still always within easy reach.
The second option is an adjustable shower arm extension with a high pressure, quick on-off shower head, the same type you might have in your shower at home. This allows me to position the head closer or farther from the bench top, depending on the crop, and to use both hands to move the produce across the table, even gently rubbing stubborn dirt with my hands or a brush if needed, without having to hold onto the sprayer. It’s not always faster, but it definitely takes less water to do the same job and there’s no fighting with the hose, or fatigue from pulling a sprayer trigger.
The final feature is a piece of metal roofing that sits below the table and directs the water and soil coming through the lath away from my feet and back to a section of gutter. The gutter then dumps the water in a trench outside of the packing shed. This keeps the floor much, much drier, which ultimately is safer and more comfortable.
Where the folding tables had been, I built fixed plywood tables for packing and distribution. These were made at a fairly low height which makes setting down totes, working with a scale on the table, and reaching into totes easy. If we have a task that requires a little extra height we just stack totes to raise the surface. Most of the actual sorting happens on the spray table, and the packing table is pretty much used for weighing the harvest and then setting up the CSA distribution.
For NWREC’s new pack shed I built the same three pieces of furniture but I took a slightly different approach. Their shed is similar in that it’s a pole structure, but it has a poured concrete floor with a full length gutter drain on the low side. While it’s still very small, it’s a bit larger at 14x20’.
Above are K-Ball nozzles used in the tote washer on the facing page. They can turn a piece of PVC pipe into a section of sprayer simply by drilling a hole in the pipes and clipping on a nozzle, available from US Plastic Corp.
Instead of a separate wash tub and spray table I built NWREC a combined unit using a single basin, double drain-board stainless restaurant sink. The sink is 52” wide and 22” deep, so very similar in proportions to the spray table I built for CNF. I found a stainless grate that is designed to roll out over the sink basin, effectively turning it into a spray table, or it can be rolled back to expose the sink, allowing it to be used for soaking or dunking.
The sink is set up with a standard faucet, plumbed to accept a garden hose as its water source. I replaced the aerator with an adjustable spray head to allow it to be used similarly to the showerhead on the spray table at CNF. And it also has a pre-rinse sprayer (the official name for the hanging sprayers on restaurant sinks because they’re designed for spraying off dishes before going into the tub of a sink or a sanitizer) which can be used to reach the corners, or for a more direct spray on the produce.
To make the sink appropriate for users of different sizes I mounted it on a hydraulic scissors lift cart. The cart raises easily with a foot pedal, and lowers with a hand lever, even when the sink is full of water. The cart also has wheels which allow it to be easily rolled out of the way when not in use. The drain on the sink is set up to discharge to the side with the idea that it will be positioned over the gutter drain in the floor, but if needed it could be connected to a drain hose to move the water farther away.
There are no stepped down shelves on the sides of this set up, but simple dunnage racks placed on either side would function similarly. I have the full plans with construction details and lots of ideas for improving the design on my blog at joshvolk.com.
Also on the blog are the designs, construction details and discussions for improvements of the packing table and tote washer I built for NWREC. The packing table uses a plastic folding table as the table top, which is hard wearing and easy to clean but much less expensive than stainless.
The height of the table top is adjustable by moving pins in the supports on either side. This makes the table appropriate for tasks that require different heights, for example when a scale is being used often the table needs to be a bit lower. It also is a benefit to any farm that has users of very different heights. On most farms I’ve worked on there have been users ranging from less than 5’ tall to well over 6’ and they definitely have different requirements for good working heights.
The packing table incorporates a few more features that I’ve long wanted, including a large storage space under the table for packing materials like wax boxes, and a narrow shelf above for materials like pens, tape for labeling, and twist ties or rubber bands. The cart is again on wheels which means it can be moved anywhere, including over to the supply of packing materials and then back to the packing area, or even into a walk-in cooler.
The tote washer is really more of a rinser and is the one piece that really needs two users to work efficiently. The basic set up is track made from a couple of PVC pipe rails that you slide an upside-down tote along. The tote passes from the person feeding at one end, through a set of four sprayers set to rinse off every surface of the tote, and then to a person catching and restacking the rinsed totes.
Over the area with the sprayers is a tarp that keeps the water from spraying everywhere, and below is a stock tank that catches the water coming off the totes and the tarp. A drain in the bottom of the stock tank allows the water to be drained away from the washing area. In practice I’ve found that the set-up is good for pre-rinsing and final rinsing of the totes, but that there’s still a bit of manual scrubbing that needs to happen to get dirty totes really clean. The nice thing here is that the rails provide a good support surface for doing that scrubbing.
For small farms where only one person is washing the totes a modified version of this washer, with a foot or knee valve to turn the sprayers on only when needed, and a shorter rail area would probably work well for washing totes more ergonomically and for containing the wash water. An additional sanitizing spray would also be easy to incorporate.
At this point the NWREC pieces have seen almost no use. While the models are functional, many aspects are unproven and will undoubtedly be improved this season as they are used. The furniture at CNF has seen a full season of use and while there are small changes still to be made, it was a huge improvement over the previous set up and we appreciated the improvements every harvest day.
Josh Volk farms in Portland, Oregon, and does consulting and education under the name Slow Hand Farm. He is the author of the book Compact Farms: 15 Proven Plans for Market Farms on 5 Acres or Less, available from Growing for Market. He can be found at SlowHandFarm.com.