One of the biggest time sucks for growers comes at the processing area, the last stop for flowers before they reach the delivery van. For some, as much time goes into preparing field cuts for sale as the actual harvesting. Grading, measuring, separating and stripping stems take time, and the more of it you use the less profitable your farm.
Depending on your market, you may be overprocessing. While large wholesalers demand exact sizes, identical bloom or bud harvest, and stripped stems, local flower buyers may not. Ours don’t, thank God, or we simply wouldn’t have stayed in business—it’s just too much work and I’m too sloppy and anti-authoritarian, every bunch of flowers would be harvested under protest to the rules of order. Our clients even prefer flowers cut at multiple stages, since they don’t look as if a cookie cutter has punched them out—they make a design look real, giving it movement instead of a finished, stale look.
If you move flowers very quickly from field to buyer, stripping becomes less necessary. Taking leaves and detritus off the lower part of stems keep them from attracting diseases, deteriorating under water, and plugging water uptake for the flowers, but if your flowers aren’t underwater for days and days the risks of problems lowers. You may have to strip if you have fussy buyers, but our last complaint about it came over two decades ago from the wholesaler we sold to—and he was only bothered by larkspur’s easily deteriorating leaves.
Some operations bring all the flowers into the processing area and have a person grade what comes in, stem by stem, but if you have well-trained harvesters this should be unnecessary. We call multitasking “the art of doing two or more things badly at the same time”, but judging length and bloom stage as you cut is doing one thing—you just have to do it right the first time. By separating harvest into cutting and processing stages, you’re making one task two, doubling the time you use.
I cut almost all of our flowers, and as owner, admittedly, it’s a different animal for me than for employees who worry if they’re doing it right. I can make quick judgments and change standards if the crop is worse or demand heightens, cut longer or shorter if needed, more open or closed if necessary, where an employee doesn’t have the understanding of the operation that tells him or her what I already know. But unless you harvest more than 150 bunches a day, you can do the cutting yourself—let employees do the more tedious, more simple tasks like weeding.
Jeriann processes the flowers, and her work consists mostly of a quick once-over regarding quality (yes, even I slip up and make mistakes, missing an aphid infestation here, misaligning stems there, among other things), recutting stems so they’re more even (if you even up stems in the field, it takes way too much time, though the stem ends should be within and inch or two of each other just by holding the bunch and pressing the stems against your body—leaving some very nice stem stains on your shirt that will tell you which clothing to wear for the farm, which for town), and sleeving.
We sleeve any flower that will be damaged by pulling in and out of buckets. Composites, like black-eyed susans, will break unless you and the clients are careful, and care takes time—which costs. Sleeves also delineate the size of bunches for buyers, necessary because people won’t buy what they don’t know they’re buying—we discovered this when we had a bucket of unsleeved quaking grass and sold none, then sleeved them up and sold them all the next trip. Customers don’t like to ask, generally, they want buying to be easy.
Sleeving allows you to pull bunches in and out of water, because the sleeves slide against each other rather than stems tangling up with each other. It also allows you to pack flowers more tightly in a bucket, since tangling isn’t a problem. We don’t sleeve too far ahead of time, however, as condensation can occur on plastic and cause quick deterioration of flower petals that touch it. Foxglove in particular, with its tissuelike flower, will brown quickly from absorbing the condensation.
We are unacquainted with paper sleeves, as they weren’t available when we began farming, but I assume they have a set of problems different than their plastic counterparts. No doubt they absorb water, where plastic doesn’t, limiting their use for longterm storage (longterm in relation to the 3-4 days of plastic sleeves).
Part of processing doesn’t go with harvest time, but with reconditioning older flowers in the cooler. You should have an idea how long you can store most of your species, and if you’ve been growing them a while you know which dirty the water more quickly so need to be recut and put in fresh water. Those with “slick” stems don’t deteriorate as rapidly as mushy stemmed species like lamb’s ears, so can sit a couple days longer without refreshing. If your flowers are packed tightly—not too tight—it’s easy to hug a whole bucket and pull the contents out in one go, lay it on the table and cut away, then get them back in fresh water. This is a good time to sleeve for the next sale.
Streamline your harvest to client process—don’t split harvest and sizing into two tasks, do both as you cut; sleeve to ease the movement of flowers in the processing area, on the delivery vehicle, for the client; strip only if you need to, as you may be doing A+ work and being paid for A- when the customer only wants the latter.