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Old July 28, 2015   #1
Salsacharley
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Default Time spent harvesting tomatoes for market

After reading the thread on current market prices for tomatoes, and seeing that most of you sellers are selling for under $4 per pound/pint, I am curious to know how much time you spend harvesting for market. I find that picking tomatoes for market is probably the worst part of the whole operation. I feel despair when I'm picking those multitude cherries and it never seems like it will end, and then I damage quite a few just picking them. It seems like they take forever to pick, and as such I feel they demand a higher price. My mixed cherry pints are my best sellers but I feel I earn the money at $5 per pint...at least in my opinion. I estimate that it takes me about 10 minutes to pick a pint of cherries, and it takes about 3 hours for me to harvest 40 lbs of all sizes. Then there's sorting and cleaning as needed. Am I being a whiny ingrate?
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Old July 28, 2015   #2
Cole_Robbie
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My grandparents started market gardening in 1982. I grew up working with them in the gardens. They always told me, "never count your time."

The week before last was my busiest of the year. I stayed up all night washing, sorting, and packing tomatoes for market, and that was after picking them all day. Counting the next morning of selling them at market, I worked a 24-hour shift.

But there's a limit to what any one person can accomplish. I hope to be able to hire help next summer. The only way to pay pickers is per unit picked, and it's still really difficult to find people who can tolerate working in the hot sun.
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Old July 28, 2015   #3
Labradors2
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Why would you wash them first? Are they covered in Seranade?

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Old July 28, 2015   #4
Cole_Robbie
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It makes them prettier if I wash off the dust and tomato pollen, and that makes them sell. Customers buy with their eyes.

Plus, in the act of washing them, I can go over them by feel and pick out the soft or damaged fruit.
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Old July 28, 2015   #5
joseph
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One thing that I have found very helpful in deciding on prices to ask for things is to take a stopwatch into the field, and actually time how long it takes me to pick something... That way, I'm not estimating, but working with real numbers. Then I say, "If I want $15 per hour for my labor, how much do I have to charge for a pint of cherry tomatoes or a basket of green beans." Sometimes I might double that, figuring that half the effort is for planting, weeding, and irrigating and half is for picking.

I save labor by not cleaning tomatoes. I especially don't wash them, because I feel like it makes them rot easier. I typically don't sort either: fruits go into a crate as they are picked, and people can choose what they want at market. If there are seconds that people don't want to buy, I'll put them in a bag marked "Tomatoes -- Seconds" and write a price on them that's about 1/2 of my already great prices.

I grow green-shouldered tomatoes... Even if it means that they don't sell as well. I want to provide the best quality and best tasting tomato.

I don't pick all the cherry tomatoes... I pick enough to put some color on the table at the farmer's market. If I'm desperate for cash, I might put in the effort to pick more.

The other farmers at market recognize the labor involved in picking cherry tomatoes, so we set a fair price for our labor and don't try to compete with lower prices. Prices can only go so low before the labor required isn't worth the pay.

However, on large tomatoes that are easy to pick, we compete fiercely to have the best pricing. It takes the same labor to pick a cherry tomato weighing a half ounce, as it does to pick a 10-12 ounce slicing tomato. There are about the same number of cherry tomatoes in a pint basket as there are average-sized slicing tomatoes in a half bushel basket. So the labor's the same either way.

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Originally Posted by Salsacharley View Post
I estimate that it takes me about 10 minutes to pick a pint of cherries, and it takes about 3 hours for me to harvest 40 lbs of all sizes.
That seems like really low productivity. I figure that it takes a couple minutes for me to pick a 1/2 bushel basket (26 pounds) of 8 ounce sized determinate tomatoes. Of course, the "all sizes" messes up the calculations. My strategy for picking is to pick the large tomatoes first, then the saladette tomatoes, then the cherry tomatoes. I pick all the large tomatoes, but I rarely pick all of the saladette or cherry tomatoes. Picking the largest first gives me a sense of accomplishment right away. Then I can trudge along with the saladettes and cherries.

Last edited by joseph; July 28, 2015 at 03:21 PM.
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Old July 28, 2015   #6
biscgolf
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I doubt it takes me much more than 2 minutes to pick a pint of cherry tomatoes once the fruit are coming in well. My help is a bit slower but certainly no more than 4 minutes. If it took me 10 minutes I would have to raise my prices too. (Been $3/pint for a long time)
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Old July 28, 2015   #7
Labradors2
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I was going to say that washing fruit causes it to rot faster, but Joseph already beat me to it! There's a step that you could eliminate and I bet nobody would notice. Don't people wash them before eating anyway? I do!

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Old July 28, 2015   #8
Cole_Robbie
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Don't people wash them before eating anyway?

Unfortunately, no, especially when they see the 'pesticide-free' sign. I have heard mothers tell their kids "that means you don't have to wash them."
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Old July 28, 2015   #9
joseph
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I don't wash tomatoes before I eat them. I offer samples at the farmer's market. People just pop them in their mouth without washing. I eat carrots without washing them... I'm such an animal! And living in a community of animals.

Last edited by joseph; July 28, 2015 at 04:08 PM.
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Old July 28, 2015   #10
BigVanVader
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Well picking cherries does take a long time and I would charge 5$ if I was charging what I thought I should get, but the simple fact is nobody will pay it here. Everyone sells them for 3$ in most of the markets in my area. I have talked to some other sellers about price but everyone seems scared to risk losing customers as most of them are just making enough to get by as it is. I may experiment with charging more next year for the Artisan blend cherries since nobody else had them but I get customers who literally yell at me about 3$ being outrageous. Not that I care too much as you cant make everyone happy but I guess for me I do it because I love it. I don't plan on ever getting rich doing it and if cherry tomatoes end up being too much of a time sink then I just wont grow them.
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Old July 28, 2015   #11
joseph
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This spring I took tomato plants to market for sale. I also picked greenhouse tomatoes from the same saladette variety and put them on the table next to the plants, so I could show what they were getting. I priced them on different days between $4 and $6 per pint. At those prices, I gave them away at the end of market. This was first thing in the spring, when I was the only person at market with tomatoes!
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Old July 28, 2015   #12
Salsacharley
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Perhaps my problem is my dense tomato patch. I have to crawl on my hands and knees and reach through a couple of feet of vines to get some tomatoes. Others I can barely reach on my tip toes. I have to clip some tomatoes off their stems, and I am trying to gauge the ripeness of the ones I pick. I may well be overestimating the time it takes me to pick, but after all the time and effort spent from planting in bare ground to ripe tomato, I am just barely justifying my activity, let alone making a decent living. I am hoping to sell an average of 100 lbs per week this year from my 250 producing plants (including 76 cherries) which will certainly improve my attitude.
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Old July 28, 2015   #13
joseph
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76 cherry tomato plants? No wonder you are tired!!!! I might plant around 250 tomato plants per year, but only about 10 of them are cherry tomatoes. You might consider replacing the cherry tomatoes with saladette tomatoes. Or choosing to grow larger cherry tomatoes instead of smaller.

I plant tomatoes on a grid... 6 feet X 3 feet. I grow determinates and let them sprawl on the ground. That saves immensely on the labor and materials needed for trellising. I can immediately see where the ripe tomatoes are. I do not try to estimate ripeness. Anything with the slightest blush to it gets picked. I have never harvested a tomato using a pair of nippers.

Last edited by joseph; July 30, 2015 at 01:17 PM.
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Old July 30, 2015   #14
Redbaron
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Salsacharley View Post
Perhaps my problem is my dense tomato patch. I have to crawl on my hands and knees and reach through a couple of feet of vines to get some tomatoes. Others I can barely reach on my tip toes. I have to clip some tomatoes off their stems, and I am trying to gauge the ripeness of the ones I pick. I may well be overestimating the time it takes me to pick, but after all the time and effort spent from planting in bare ground to ripe tomato, I am just barely justifying my activity, let alone making a decent living. I am hoping to sell an average of 100 lbs per week this year from my 250 producing plants (including 76 cherries) which will certainly improve my attitude.
That's a very good point. The tomatoes I grow in my garden are dense planted and it does take much longer to pick them than the tomatoes I grow for market. That's exactly why I have rows 6 feet center to center for my market plots, and 2 feet between plants for determinates and 3 feet between indeterminates. Makes care and harvest SOOO much easier. But you do need to have room to do it that way.
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Old July 30, 2015   #15
BigVanVader
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76 cherries!! That is pretty much insanity. I have 15 plants and I get sick of picking them and will not do much more than 15 probably ever.
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