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First Isn’t Always Best

Last week I was talking with a friend who mentioned apples were being picked in North Carolina.

“But it’s July”, was my response. “Are the apples ready?”

Apple season in my state doesn’t usually start until August. Most apple orchards are in western North Carolina, where cool nighttime temperatures combined with warm days cause the apples to mature. This also causes the apples to turn from green to whatever color the variety is. Galas turn from green to red, Pink Lady turn from green to pink – you get the idea. We’ve had a warm summer, so I was surprised to hear apples were mature enough for harvest.

Many of our apples are packed and sold to groceries and other wholesale buyers, but most apple farmers also have a roadside stand. The first one to have apples can get a premium price for “local,” which is great if the apples are ripe and ready. In this case, most aren’t. So while the farmer gets a higher price initially, once people bite into an apple that isn’t ripe, they may not return to buy more. In the short run, selling early may be a benefit; long term, it may hurt the farm. Being first may not be best.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about a farmer harvesting a crop early. I grew up in peanut country. We used to say it didn’t matter how long the peanuts needed to stay in the ground before they matured. Once the first peanut harvester went down the road, every farmer would start digging.

There are many factors that determine if a crop is mature and ready for harvest. One thing we look at before digging our sweet potatoes is size.

Depending on variety, the general guideline is to dig sweet potatoes 90 to 110 days after transplanting slips to the field. Before digging a field, we take the shovel and dig up samples to see what size the sweet potatoes are. Our goal is to harvest the majority of the field when the sweet potatoes are between 10 and 17 ounces.  

Color is very important for some crops, such as strawberries and apples. Until I started working with strawberry farmers, I didn’t know a strawberry stops ripening when picked.  This means a berry picked when green or yellow will never mature to a ripe red.  

As I mentioned earlier, cool nighttime temperatures cause apples to change color. Color is actually one of the things apples are graded on when sold to a wholesale or retail buyer, so picking early could be an expensive loss.

When harvesting grain crops, we check the moisture content of the grain. If the moisture percent is too high, we may give the crop more time to dry on its own before putting the combine in the field. If picked too moist, we either have to dry the grain in our bins or pay the grain mill to do it. Sometimes waiting just a few hours can make the difference in grain that’s above the desired moisture content and grain that isn’t.  

Of course, these are just general guidelines and may change depending on any number of things. Last year, Hurricane Matthew was forecasted to hit my state while we still had corn in the field. We harvested corn in the days and nights leading up to the storm making landfall and were able to get it all out of the field. Moisture content of the grain didn’t matter at that point; getting the corn out before the hurricane laid down all the corn stalks did. 

What do you consider when determining if a crop is ready for harvest?


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