Marketing tips: Sorting, washing, grading and packing your fresh produce


Good presentation is critical to the successful marketing of fresh fruit and vegetables. The 4 main activities are discussed in this article.

If a farmer spends a lot of time, money and effort growing a crop with the sole intention of harvesting it and doesn’t make any effort to present it well to potential buyers, he should ask himself if he’s really serious about being a farmer.

If you don’t have a pack house, don’t worry. I’ve seen small-scale farmers who do not have a pack house – in fact, not even a roof to work under – who offer quality products prepared under the shade of a large tree. I did it myself when I farmed.

Some of our biggest and best cabbage farmers sort, grade and pack their cabbages in the field, then carry the full bags to the truck to take to the market.

These nylon bags are ideal for cabbages from a marketing perspective.

Next time you’re at a fresh produce market (you should visit regularly if you’re a fresh produce farmer) watch how the buyers go about finding the best products to buy. They open boxes, unpack stacks and look inside containers in the middle of the stack; they lift up the products and check the ones at the bottom.

Why? Because they want the best for their money and they’re “buying with their eyes”. They’re looking at quality, sizing, cleanliness, colour and packing to see if the product is worth buying.

Go into a supermarket or retailer selling fresh produce. Note that the fruit and vegetables are neatly displayed and look tempting. Watch other shoppers as they pick up a packet of this or a pocket of that. It’s all done with the eyes. If it looks good and is presented well, they’ll probably buy it.


  • Offer products in dirty, old containers and your price will suffer.
  • Throw products into a container of mixed sizes, colours and quality, and watch your price take a dive.



The aim of this step is to make sure you discard the very worst products – those that are damaged, too small, diseased, too green or over-ripe, and so on. You’re not going to sell them, so get them out of the way before they cost you more money.

Take green beans as an example. All you have is a big, shady tree near where the green beans are growing. Spread a large plastic sheet or something similar under the tree and as the pickers bring in the beans throw them (gently!) on to the plastic and spread them out so that the person doing the sorting can see them better.

This may not be the most efficient way of doing things but it’s the cheapest; as long as you’re out of the sun. A large, flat surface, such as a trestle table, makes working much easier. Have an empty box near to the sorter/packer for the discarded produce. That same person could also pack the beans – the best ones will be easier to select.


Only certain products need to be washed. Those that have mud or soil on them and those, like fruit, that have chemical spray residues on the skin. Of course, you don’t wash a cabbage but you can rinse the leaves of spinach or wash potatoes.

I know a farmer near East London who grows excellent spinach and cabbage and always rinses the spinach before tying it into bunches. He says the buyers like to see the spinach looking fresh, still with the water droplets on the leaves. And he does this preparation under the shade of a thorn tree next to his field.


  • Always use clean water.
  • Change the water often.
  • Use a recognised disinfectant, such as these ones made specifically for fresh produce.

The next step after washing is to make sure the products are dry. In a pack house they have special blowers to dry the fruit. If you don’t have a pack house, lay the products out (not in direct sunlight) and let the wind do the drying.

Never pack any fruit or vegetable that isn’t completely dry. This is the fastest way to build up bacteria and fungi in the container and spoil your products.


This is a very important step: done properly, grading improves the presentation of your product – and the price you’ll get!

Grading is very important because:

  • It sets a standard. If you grade a product according to set specifications, it means everybody concerned with that product understands it in the same way. It also means the better quality is separated from the lower quality.
  • It sets a price. Because there is a grade, a price can be reached between buyer and seller. Grade 1 (Class 1) sells for a better price than Grade 2 and so on.
  • It creates confidence. A standard has been set, it means everybody in the supply chain, from farmer to consumer, can have confidence in the product.

Even if you don’t have all the grading regulations you can still grade your products correctly by:

  • Separating the sizes. Extra-large, large, medium and small should each be in their own containers.
  • Separating the colours (ripeness). A good example is tomatoes – greens together, pink (champagne) together and red together.
  • Separating the grades. Grade 1 together, Grade 2 together, Grade 3 (undergrade) together.

Spend time and effort on grading. Make sure it’s done correctly. You’ll see the benefits in your bank account!


The final step – how you put the product into the container – can either improve your product or spoil it.

These principles apply to all produce:

  • Good handling. The most important point is to handle the product carefully. Don’t squeeze something into a too-small space; find the right size and position it – carefully.
  • Keep the sizes, colours and grades together. You did this during grading, so now all you have to do is continue in the same way.
  • Don’t overpack. Avoid forcing more into the container than it can hold, and avoid bulging sides or tops too.
    Stick to the weight. There are minimum weights for most products and it’s your responsibility to pack according to these weights. The principle is simple: if you buy a packet of sugar that says 1 kg and you get home to find it is only 750 g, would you be happy? Well, the person buying your product also wants to get the weight that conforms to the law.
  • Never pack wet products. Moisture on fruit and vegetables causes bacteria and fungi to develop which will soon make your product unsaleable.

If you produce a quality crop and then sort, wash, grade and pack it properly, you will always be able to sell your products – because people buy with their eyes!

Also read:
Marketing your fresh produce
The fresh produce supply chain
Fresh produce – let your brand do the selling
Choose the right market for your fresh produce

  • This article was written by Michael Cordes and first appeared in Farming SA.

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