In agriculture, post-harvest handling is the stage of crop production immediately following harvest, including cooling, cleaning, sorting and packing. The instant a crop is removed from the ground, or separated from its parent plant, it begins to deteriorate. Post-harvest treatment largely determines final quality, whether a crop is sold for fresh consumption, or used as an ingredient in a processed food product. Effective handling decreases post-harvest losses.
The most important goals of post-harvest handling are keeping the product cool, to avoid moisture loss and slow down undesirable chemical changes, and avoiding physical damage such as bruising, to delay spoilage. Sanitation is also an important factor, to reduce the possibility of pathogens that could be carried by fresh produce, for example, as residue from contaminated washing water.
After the field, post-harvest processing is usually continued in a packing house. This can be a simple shed, providing shade and running water, or a large-scale, sophisticated, mechanized facility, with conveyor belts, automated sorting and packing stations, walk-in coolers and the like. In mechanized harvesting, processing may also begin as part of the actual harvest process, with initial cleaning and sorting performed by the harvesting machinery.
Initial post-harvest storage conditions are critical to maintaining quality. Each crop has an optimum range for storage temperature and humidity. Also, certain crops cannot be effectively stored together, as unwanted chemical interactions can result. Various methods of high-speed cooling, and sophisticated refrigerated and atmosphere-controlled environments, are employed to prolong freshness, particularly in large-scale operations. Regardless of the scale of harvest, from home garden to industrialized farm,
the basic principles of post-harvest handling for most crops are the same:
•handle with care to avoid damage (cutting, crushing, bruising)
•cool immediately and maintain in cool conditions
•cull (remove damaged items)