Marketing & Sales Series: Pt 3 ~ Safe, Inexpensive & Sustainable Packing Tips!

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There’s a lot to consider when packing for market, such as food safety, box sourcing, labeling, standard pack sizes, and much more. Today, we continue our Marketing & Sales series with tips from Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), Riverdog Farm, and Full Belly Farm on how to pack your product safely, inexpensively, and sustainably. We also give some great leads on box and supply companies referred by our farmer community. Read on for valuable tips about:

  • Packing and Food Safety
  • Wholesale Pack Requirements
  • Bulk Order Boxes & Labels
  • Cardboard Boxes & Supplies
  • Reusable Packaging

Packing and Food Safety

You’ve got to get your product to market, and that means putting it in some sort of packaging. While it might seem easier to just throw it in a box, there are guidelines – some by law and some required by different types of customers – that you must follow. Here are some tips from Heather Granahan, the North Coast Regional Food System Advisor for CAFF, on how to pack safely in the field and the packing house.

In-field packing:
  • If you use the same truck to haul compost and field crops, rinse your truck and let it air dry before using for crops.
  • Number or name your fields and label boxes with the field the goods came from. Traceability will reassure many buyers into a good relationship with you.
  • Keep boxes OFF the ground, dirty carts, and truck beds; even if just on cardboard or pallets. Dirty bottoms drop dirt into all the boxes under them!
  • Worker hygiene is critical! Have a wash station at the bathroom/port-a-potty. Provide disposable gloves if you have any doubts. Some workers like them anyway.
  • Field hygiene is important. Make sure your workers know what to do in case of animal “donations” or carcasses, human blood, or other bodily happenings in the fields. Cordon off six feet around the “event” and do gloved removal of everything in that area into the trash before harvesting again in that area.
  • Cover boxes as you fill them if you fill in the field. This protects your visual inspection point integrity, as you can make sure nothing unwanted falls into the box.
  • Ideally, use all new boxes for market. Reusing boxes is where recalls happen. At the very least, use new liners and bags in used boxes. These guidelines especially apply to greens where many reuse those spendy waxed boxes.
Capay Organic's field packed chard

Capay Organic’s field-packed chard

Packing house:
  • Straight line “field-to-box” packing is ideal. Bring in the harvested produce at one end of washing area, wash without getting field boxes on tables, and keep moving items straight into market boxes and into your walk-in or cool-down area.
  • Stack your boxes loosely for cool-down. Buyers often complain of pallets arriving with the middle boxes still holding field heat. And of course, going bad faster. Pack pallets after cooling.
  • Use potable H2O to clean.
  • Clean “kitchen clean” – not just “farm clean” – especially with root vegetables! You can lose a buyer with one dirty box, and turn them off to all local buying altogether. It happens.

Wholesale Pack Requirements

Wholesale buyers require farmers to meet certain packing and grading standards. However, those standards can often vary depending on the buyer. If you’re not sure what your buyer wants, ask! Both of you could save money and hassle.

For example, schools and institutions often do not want clamshell boxes for their cherry tomatoes, but grocers and some distributors often do. Some food service wants the lettuce bunched, but the greens just loose in a lined box. Always check with your customers first.

Additionally, sell the oddballs. Food service can often use your overgrown zucchini and yellow-bellied cucumbers – and they can really use the price break on them, too! Don’t leave them in the field, call a school or Council on Aging (or call CAFF, and they’ll connect you to someone)!

For the exact standard dimensions and packaging type requirements for nearly 100 different fruits and vegetables, check out our quick and easy Produce Pack Guide, adapted from the Wholesale Success Manual.

Bulk Order Boxes and Labels

Several of our farmer members save money by ordering their boxes and labels together. Additionally, many order custom printing on their boxes as a group to create a ‘casual’ brand for their region. Read on as Brian Boyce, of Riverdog Farm, shares what he and his neighboring farmers did to save money and resources on boxes and printing.

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Riverdog’s regional box design

As a region, Riverdog and a number of other farms, decided that in order to get bulk prices, it made sense to create a regional box that each individual farm would put their own label on. Group purchasing in this way saves money, while also helping to indent a region for marketing purposes. These boxes were essentially a unifying agent between a number of farms in the area, without forcing us to be super tied together like a coop. It’s more or less a loose association with common standards.

For the boxes, we chose those that fit the required standard pack sizes for the crops we were growing, and then each farm determined how many pallets of each size box they needed in the year, or season. Boxes are generally sized to fit on a 40×48 inch pallet, a standard, so if you’re developing a line of boxes, you definitely want to try to stay within the typical, legal standards. It makes things easier.

Once the box sizes were selected, we came up with a basic logo design that was repeated on every size box. The only difference on each size box was the “check off’ list on one end panel. This is a list of the various items (by size and unit) that would have to be packed in that box.

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“Check off” list on side panel

This was a very simple design and was custom to the farm. When we all grew to become larger operations, we put our logos and names on the end of the box where the check off list is. This saves money as five sides use the same printing plate, and the sixth side is customizable to the farm (as long as you can afford a minimum run of boxes by yourself).

One of the added benefits to this type of group purchasing is that the company (Reynolds) would store the back-stock for us and deliver one or two pallets per week. Storage is a crucial factor! Rodents love to live in pallets of boxes. You get a bunch on feces on them and you’ve created a food safety issue, not to mention they are useless if they rot, melt together, or get soaked. Reynolds storage helped us avoid this whole issue.

Cardboard Boxes and Supplies

Cardboard boxes are heavy to ship, so many farms source their boxes from local suppliers to avoid delivery fees. Here are a few popular box and supply companies recommended by our members in CA (they are also all in the FarmsReach Source Directory):

  • Reynolds Packaging (serves N. CA): Source for waxed & paper boxes, plastic, and paper bags. They sell small lots.
  • Feather River Packaging (serves N. CA): Sells waxed & paper boxes, plastic totes, clamshells, and more.
  • Uline (serves S. CA): Shipping supplies, packaging, liners, and more.
  • Orbis Corporation (serves S. & N. CA): Bulk containers, trays, cases, and reusable packaging.

We are continually adding new suppliers to our Source Directory. If you have a favorite supplier of boxes, totes, or packing materials for any region of the U.S., let us know or click to add them to our growing list!

Reusable Packaging

While plastic isn’t as sustainable a material as cardboard, it does reduce waste. Several farms are starting to use reusable crates for deliveries and CSAs, while some are using them on the farm for easier harvesting and pack prep.

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Full Belly’s new, reusable boxes next to the old, wax ones

Full Belly Farm, (just recently recognized by the Reusable Packaging Association with an Excellence in Reusable Packaging award!), recently purchased hard plastic boxes from Orbis Corporation for their CSA program, and continues to look at further ways to replace throw-away packaging with durable, reusable options.

Below, Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, shares what her farm considered and learned in their transition to reusable packaging.

  • Think about the actual benefits. Although the environmental benefits may at first seem obvious, there are always going to be tradeoffs. Reusable packaging will result in less waste going to the landfill and probably a reduced carbon footprint — and maybe there are additional environmental plusses. But, will there be increased trucking costs? Will there be more water use as a result of sanitizing? You have to think through the whole process to make sure it pencils out.
  • Tell your crew and customers why the change is a good thing. You may need to think through the way that you introduce the new packaging to your crew, your customers, and the people who load trucks and deliver. Support from all of them may be needed in order for the change to be a success, as there will likely be surprises. Stacks of our new hard plastic CSA boxes were a little bit less stable until we learned how to adjust. They’re also a little heavier and some of our home-delivery drivers were upset. But, they are also quite spiffy-looking, so some of our CSA members like to take them home! The more of a story that you can tell to all concerned, about why the change is a good thing, the better.
  • It’s not simple, but try to calculate the return on your investment. You will have to estimate how many times the reusable packaging will be reused and if there is a chance that some of it will be lost or stolen (like our CSA members not returning their boxes). You should think about new management and sanitizing steps that you are going to have to introduce, and potential additional labor that will be involved. In our case, because we are certain that the new boxes will be good for many uses, we are convinced that even taking all of the additional costs into account, and the high cost per box of the purchase, we will save significant money over time because we are buying so many fewer waxed cardboard boxes.

Curious about reusable packaging? Here are some reusable crate and tote suppliers recommended by members in our Source Directory.


Thank you to all of our guest writers, Heather, Brian, and Judith, for sharing this valuable information!

To view more resources on pack and packaging, visit our Marketing & Sales Toolkit. There, you’ll find easy-to-use info sheets, checklists, worksheets and recommended resources. 

We’re continuing to expand the Marketing & Sales Toolkit, so stay tuned for more resources!

If you happened to miss them, check out our other features in the Marketing & Sales Series:

If you have questions or words of wisdom about packing for market, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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