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Protecting the Bounty- Harvest and Post Harvest Handling of Organic Grains
By Harriet Behar
This article was first printed in the November - December 2007 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
After spending a full season preparing, growing, scouting, and cultivating it is important to put the same care and thought into your harvest, handling and storage for your organic commodities. If you are growing either organic livestock feed or human grade food, your customers are paying a significant premium for their purchases. In the long run delivering a quality product ensures that premium and builds solid relationships.
The first step to a high quality product is to scout your fields before you harvest. If you are growing food grade soybeans for the first time, all of the weeds that might be in your field (since you are an organic grower, I will assume there are a few weeds here and there,) should be dead. Any green matter can stain your beans during harvest and these beans will then lose the human food premium. Stained beans can still be sold as organic livestock feed for a lower price. If you had any volunteer corn or nightshade, rogue that out, so no corn kernels or nightshade berries are run through the combine with your soybeans. When harvesting your soybeans, try not to dig too low and get dirt or stones into the beans. It is worth it to leave a few beans behind rather than lose your human food grade premium. Harvest the beans when the dew or moisture is not present, so the dust in the field doesn’t stick to the beans. Even organic livestock grade beans should be as clean as possible, although there is a little more tolerance for staining and dirt with this commodity.
For corn, check your moisture levels and see what your market is requiring. If you need to dry your corn, try to find a certified organic handler for this before you start your harvest if possible (See the MOSES Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory). There may even be other farmers in your area with drying bins they are not using that you could perhaps rent (make sure they are clean). Planning ahead can save you trucking and handling costs as well as headaches. Make sure you know the intricacies of how to operate your combine most effectively and avoid damage to the crop and loss of crop back onto the field. Take the time when you are first starting to adjust the combine so it operates at its best, based on the crop and climate conditions. If you are planning to grow soybeans in your corn field next year preventing loss of kernels onto the field now can save you a lot of hand pulling next summer.
Look over your fields and if there are areas where the crop is not as high a quality as others, try to not mix the two together, preserving the food grade premium on the high quality and selling the lower quality as a separate load for livestock feed. You want the buyers of your crops to remember you as a high quality producer with whom they want to build a long-term relationship. As a valued supplier, you are more likely to receive the highest premium more consistently and can have more flexibility on when the crop is purchased.
If you have buffer zones planted in the same commodity as the organic crop, decide if you are going to harvest the buffer area first or last. Remember, the combine needs to be completely clean before harvesting your certified organic crop. You will need to clean and purge the combine after harvesting the nonorganic buffer zone if you are harvesting organic afterwards. Keep track of how many bushels were in the buffer and purge, and document this in your certification paperwork, including how the grain was used (sold to local elevator, fed to on farm nonorganic livestock etc.). There is no specific amount of bushels needed to purge a combine; it depends on how wide the head is and the density of the crop. One bushel is too little and twenty bushels is probably more than enough. Get to know your equipment and be able to justify your purge amount when you are talking to your organic inspector.
Cleaning Harvesting Equipment
If you are hiring a custom combiner, discuss the cleaning and purging you are going to do with them before they arrive in your field. Have a gravity wagon ready to dump the nonorganic buffer/purge from the combine bin, so the operator can then get to harvesting the organic. Some custom operators may bring their combine to your farm the night before and let you clean it out. Others will clean their combine themselves, which you should then check over. Cleaning a combine with compressed air can take about 4 hours. Just the presence of a few GMO soybeans or GMO corn kernels in your semi-load could cause your crop to be rejected. All food grade corn and beans are extensively GMO tested and some livestock feeds are tested as well. Even if you physically clean the combine, it is still a good idea to purge it with some organic crop, and either dump this purge or use it as nonorganic. An “empty” combine can still hold 2-3 bushels of the previous crop. The purging tends to scour out the hard to reach places. John Deere did an experiment a few years ago and found cleaning with a subsequent purge is the only way to guarantee the entire previous crop is out of the combine. Cleaning and purging is part of the protocol for farmers who are preserving the identity and consistency of seed crops. Remember, it is your loss if your crop is rejected due to GMO contamination, so make sure you find a combiner who will take the time to make sure the combine is clean and purged. You are selling a high quality crop, so work with the combine and make sure the settings are right on speed and the cylinder, to result in as few splits or cracks as possible. Cracked grains are more attractive to molds and insects in storage.
If you are borrowing or using trucks or gravity wagons that are not dedicated to organic use make sure all of these are completely clean of crops and even dust. GMOs are part of the DNA and even GMO dust on your crop can result in a positive GMO test. Open the hopper bottoms and clean them out. Climb up into the truck and make sure it is spic and span. Unroll the truck tarp and make sure there is nothing caught in there. Many trucks go to car washes before they come to your farm to clean out the dust. If your buyer is not hauling only certified organic commodities, discuss this cleaning with them before they send out the truck, so the driver knows to clean it before it gets to your farm. You do not want to load your crop into a wet truck, so avoid washing it on your farm. If you are not comfortable with the cleanliness of the truck, do not load it. Truckers are notorious for being in a hurry, don’t let that influence your activity - take the time to physically verify the truck is clean. If the trucker states he previously carried an organic crop of the same type (soybeans for soybeans, corn for corn), have him sign a document that the soybeans you see in the truck are organic. You can verify this with the buyer before loading, if you have a suspicion this may not be true.
On Farm Storage
Even before you start the harvest, you should be working to clean your on-farm storage. Vacuuming or using compressed air to clean under aeration floors and in all cracks and crevices will help with insect control, especially if you anticipate the crop will be in storage through the winter and into the warmer months. Mow the weeds around the perimeter to remove rodent habitat. Don’t put new grain on top of old grain, since the older grain may have some insect populations that you do not want to introduce into your new grain. Examine your augers and other grain transfer equipment (grain vac, conveyors) and evaluate them for their effectiveness and gentleness to your crop. You might want to rent, borrow or buy a higher quality piece of equipment, if your own transfer equipment, might significantly lower crop quality. Many organic farmers preclean their grains before putting them in storage with a rotary or other type of cleaner, removing weed seeds, pods and dirt which result in a higher quality grain when loading out of the bin. Why waste storage space with weed seeds and pods, especially since these are attractive to insects too? Look over your bin for cracks and holes. Go inside after dark with a flashlight and shine it around the seams and bolts, have someone outside check for any light coming through.
If you are considering adding Diatomaceous Earth (DE) to your bin to control soft-bodied insects in storage, remember to use a dust mask when handling this dust with microscopically sharp edges. What slices the insects shell or skin can also damage your lungs with too much exposure. One or two pounds of DE can be used in your bin, sprinkle some on the aeration floor before you load and run it on low as you fill the bin. Also dust it liberally on top after it is filled. Alternately, you can dribble it onto the auger periodically as you fill and then put more on the top of the filled bin.
Fall is a good time to check the small grains you have in storage, making sure they are in good condition. Don’t count on colder weather to improve your crop if it is showing some insect damage or mold. Check into the grain about 6-12 inches below the top surface, where the mold tends to start. Pulling a load out of the bin and refilling the bin can break up any mold that might be starting to form. Pay attention to the moisture content and if your grains are not optimum, work at marketing or using the crop before next spring.
Don’t overfill your bins. Leave enough headspace on top to prevent condensation from touching the grain and for moisture to wick out and dissipate, preventing mold. Check with your buyers for the moisture content they want to purchase and use aeration or low heat if necessary to bring your crop to the right moisture. Typically in storage, soybeans should be at 11-14% moisture, 13-16% for shell corn, 12.5-13.5% for human food grade small grains and 12-15% for feed grains. Ear corn can be a little higher than shell corn, with a corn crib a good storage option. Try to harvest grains when dry and keep them dry, to prevent mycotoxin development. This causes the grain to be unpalatable to animals, and, if eaten, can result in reproductive problems, or in worse case, serious illness or death. If you think you have some mycotoxins at harvest, clean the grain before putting it into storage. The good seed is heavier than the damaged seed and you can remove a lot by this separation. Check the crop quality often in storage.
Lastly, document your activities! (This is an article about organic harvest and storage after all). Keep track of what you have done, including cleaning, combine purging, use of DE, etc. Your field activity log or bin record can be used, or a cleaning log if you keep one of those. Keeping track of your activities can help you plan how much time you will need next year, as well as making notations on what worked well (combine settings, grain transfer, grain cleaning) so you know what to do next year with less fuss. All organic commodities shipped in bulk MUST have a lot number assigned. This should be on all transfer documents, including the Bill of Lading, Clean Truck Affidavit, Weigh Ticket, Transaction Certificate Authorization and Invoice. MOSES has a fact sheet on how to develop a good lot numbering system. It is also a good idea to write that the commodity is organic on your transfer documents, even though the organic regulation doesn’t mandate that. If, and we hope not, your load of organic soybeans ends up in a ditch, you want the BOL to clearly state those were ORGANIC soybeans and not just any old soybeans…..it will make it easier to recoup your organic price from the insurance agency. The lot number, your name, your buyer name and date of shipment are all important for the audit trail at your buyer’s inspection. If your certifier requires Transaction Certificates, complete this authorization as the truck is driving out of your driveway, or call the buyer in a few hours to see what the exact weight was at unloading. Your buyer may not pay you until they receive the TC, so it is in your best interest to authorize it as soon as the product is shipped and you have the information you need.
There is a very strong market for organic small grains, corn and soybeans, helping organic farmers here in the Midwest make a decent living. It is hard to know what the market may do in the distant future, but at least for the next few years, the market should remain strong. Getting into the habit of doing a good job of harvest, handling and storage will help you sell a quality product, maintain a good relationship with your buyers, and bring you enjoyment of an organic bounty.
Harriet Behar is the MOSES Outreach Specialist. She was an organic inspector and inspector trainer for many years and has an organic bedding plant and vegetable operation with her husband in Southwest WI.
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