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Grading the crop

Posted by Michael Phillips 
Grading the crop
October 15, 2020 02:13PM
Recently I shared grower perspective with our orchard customers. I'm fairly confident about my "grading standards" but now I'm curious how other growers handle the organic side of perfection.

I grade apples as I pick, those "good enough to eat" versus outright cider apples. The driving imperative in the first case means there will be no surprise within. I hold smaller apples to a higher standard, yet recognize a callused bird peck in a big apple still yields 99% viability. (Those not appreciating this sort of organic judgment should consider the "farmer grade apples" that our family uses as a matter of course!) This first round of sorting is aimed at putting out bushel boxes from which customers can choose a mix of varieties. A second round of grading occurs if I bag fruit myself and therefore spot any misbeholden apples that missed my eye the first time. I'll even up the standard if packing for a store order but then raise prices accordingly.

Meanwhile, I experience a range of customer understanding. First, the high enders who apparently believe that only they deserve the biggest, most perfect-looking, absolutely-wowser apples. My grading efforts might best be called select orchard run and this in turn allows me to keep prices reasonable. In truth, these high enders should be paying $5 a pound for extra fancy beyond-organic apples. Meanwhile, the rest of my customers see ever smaller apples in the box. Not exactly fair, right?

Second, the mounders who have no problem filling a bag above the brim. Now we are talking about people who are deliberately cheating the farmer (me) by taking anywhere from one to four extra pounds of fruit based on standard volume pricing.

So what's a guy to do? This final weekend of the season I will be selling "the keepers" already bagged in peck and half-peck amounts. It's a limited crop year and thus half bushel amounts of Spies and Baldwins and the like will not be an option. I personally prefer that my long-term customers get a piece of the action. I've also decided that when selling half-bushel amounts it will be for single varieties only, and such will be packed by me. I've also tightened my pricing to better reflect that most people today purchase apples in smaller amounts. Customers essentially pay $3 a pound for a quarter-peck and just over $2 a pound for a single varietal bushel. No mixing in the latter case, no high ending, no mounding, in order to get that deal.

Lost Nation Orchard
Zone 4b in New Hampshire

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/15/2020 02:18PM by Michael Phillips.
Re: Grading the crop
October 17, 2020 09:55PM
Now isn't this a timely discussion.
I have been all over the map with this over the years, and most often it isn't the cropload, the blemishes criteria, or the marketing that is the most stressful for me, but rather the TIME it takes to mull things over. I think what a good crop year does is make it easier to sort because there are proportionally a lot more "firsts", and still the need for plenty of cider grade. This s___ year has slowed things down as I consider what amount of battle wounds is ok to let in. In some years we have had good success just letting folks paw through them at an orchard run price and let them decide what is worth this averaged price. Yes, the finicky take all the best ones but the benefit in less income is offset from my labor. I am not built as the best person for sorting. I have been known to turn a fruit over and over in my hand in contemplation. However, this is 2020, the year of biblical level crisis, so we have limited folks pawing through bins and instead opting for prepacking with only one set of dirty fingers.

As for packing for retail outlets, I too am more careful about what goes in the sack. But this isn't because they deserve it or because the price is good, but because many outlets are not the best at keeping things in good shape. Some of those blemishes sitting at room temp for a week in a tote is headed for trouble. With the local folks, I can talk to them about it, find out what they are doing with the 2nds, what storage do they have, etc. I did grade this year- select (little to no blemishes) - seconds (no bruising but with healed wounds or scab spots and little guys that are relatively more unblemished. My ultimate grading here is whether will that mark vanish with a peeling. No codling moth or sawfly evidence allowed. Then of course cider grade, which is stuff that I would eat but likely won't last a few weeks, which does of course go to the mill. Finally, the moldy apples, especially those with clear likelihood of listeria infection is sent directly to the Republican National Committee.

Retail for 1sts is 2.75 and up, and seconds 2.00. In normal years where we could have 50 cultivars out there at a given moment I would charge more due to the work. No volume discount unless they are CSA members. I will bet this year I could have charged twice as much, and this year we need it but felt it would be a pretty crappy thing to do.

This is obvious, but it bears repeating. This is organic growing, and most of us are doing even more, especially out of a sense of responsibility. Having a fruit with even just a few spots is very difficult unless you are spraying more, well, than maybe you should be. It is more common that I get a comment on an apple I discarded like "what's wrong with that ?", and I am surprised. I think if I had my way, that is the only customer I would have, regardless of my income, and let the fussy folks go hang. They are missing the point.
Re: Grading the crop
October 25, 2020 08:00PM
Timely, indeed, as the apples in our walk-in dwindle and we find we have to sort more and more rigorously for sellable fruit. We have also struggled to come up with a definitive fruit grading system, and it has been on my list for some time to post something on this forum to pick the community brain about such things, and tangentially-related fruit washing. While we want our fruit to look as good as possible, and still pause to gaze in admiration at a perfectly sized and shaped, flawless apple, it's also very important to us that customers know what "real" apples look like.

This year we have sold #1 apples (minimal to no physical or internal damage, but plenty of sooty blotch and flyspeck), #2 apples (dry damage, any with telltale signs of impending rot development, but no large wet damage and no worm damage), and cider apples (worms, curculio damage, etc., but still no wet damage). Anything with active rot spots, we cut up and press ourselves. We sell our apples as $5 bags that weigh about 3.5 lbs (we just fold down paper lunch bags to save on packaging costs, and because we like the more rustic look that focuses attention on the fruit itself) and in bushel boxes ($45 for #1 quality, $30 for #2 quality, with further discounts for bulk purchase). We would love to be able to go up in price, and surely do need to go up in price, but at this time don't feel comfortable doing so, as it is important to us to win over our local rural communities, who are used to buying a bushel of conventional apples for $15 in nearby Cana, VA. Elsewhere in NC, particularly in touristy orchard areas, conventional apples are as high as $30 a bushel, and perhaps our pricing ideology would change if we were situated closer to them, but I want my neighbors to want my apples, and to be able to afford to do so. I'm grateful for the big city folks who don't mind paying more, but frankly, I don't particularly like them or aspire to feeding them.

What we have found is that, by and large, if people have found us and come out to the farm for apples, it's because they want our kind of apples, and they usually have lower standards than our own, appearance-wise (looking at a bag of particularly ugly and unappealing #2 apples: "Why, there's nothing wrong with these apples."). We also go to festivals and markets, yes, even in 2020, and because we have a broader customer base at such events, we relentlessly hand-grade our apples . . . and my god, the time it takes. If I'm putting together 200 bags of apples to take to a festival, I stay up all night preparing them, particularly because we do a lot of "heirloom mix" bags, and I am so nitpicky about alternating the varieties to get a good-looking, even mix in the bags. We also do a stupid amount of re-sorting because our orchard store consists of an old tobacco packhouse that is not climate-controlled, so if unsold bags sit out at 80 degrees over the weekend, it's time to re-sort them for the following week.

Even with the unbelievable and unperceived (by the customer) labor involved, we are very happy with selling by the bag as opposed to allowing the pick-through free-for-all. Our concerns aren't virus-related. We just hate people touching our stuff and bruising it, etc. Plus, we don't have to deal with on-the-spot weighing and maintaining small change (we are cash/check only).

On to my washing query: for the most part, we like the appearance of flyspeck and sooty blotch. It's a badge of authenticity for the natural apple crowd, appeals to the rural old-timey apple crowd because "that's what our apples used to look like," and allows for education (I started to write, "you won't believe," but no, I think you'll all believe how many people tell us that they discard all the apples on their home trees because they think the speck and blotch are dangerous or inedible molds!!!). However, we have experimented with washing some of our #1 apples destined for bags in a bleach solution to get rid of way over-the-top sooty blotch -- in particular, on a golden variety that gets blotched to the point of being gray without a trace of yellow. We would never do this for any cider apples since cidermakers may want to utilize the natural yeasts on the fruit surface, and historically, do not wash any of our apples pre-sale. If it has bird droppings, it's simply culled.

But there's no doubt about it, as we experiment with washing many of our varieties, they sure do look gorgeous and more appealing, and we feel the hand of temptation. Furthermore, we have noticed that late varieties (for us down South) like 'Arkansas Black' have a ton of bird droppings, presumably because there are less leaves on the trees. We are toying with the idea of aspiring to a wash line of sorts and just washing all the apples not destined for cider sales. Because we sort our apples so rigorously, we have also found that washing is a huge help to discerning damage. Sooty blotch patches often mask a rot spot that sort of blends in.

So I'm just curious to hear from others: what is your policy on washing your fruit pre-sale? If you wash, does it consist solely of water to take care of physical debris, or do you use bleach or any other cleaning agent?


Kordick Family Farm
Westfield, NC
Zone 7a
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