Harvest time is the most important time of any homesteaders year. Now depending on what exactly harvesting, this time could be in the spring, summer, or fall but regardless of when it is, it will determine whether or not your season was a success. A lot of novice gardeners (i.e me two years ago and arguably still now), will see the harvest time as the “fun” part. They envision themselves skipping out to the garden and picking beautifully ripened fruits and vegetables. I won’t lie, this part is often fun but it doesn’t stay that way. Here’s a few things to think about before your harvest to ensure your homestead gets the most out of their bounty.
Work hard before harvest to ensure it happens
I feel that often there is a lot of focus on 2 events when it comes to growing food, the beginning and the end. If we are talking about vegetables this often means people focus on planting your crops and then when you pull them from the garden. For meat animals it may be when you buy them and when you butcher. Neither the beginning or the end are most important, its what happens in between. Sure there are good things to be said about getting your plants or animals off to a good start but a good start will only get you so far. There are plenty of gardeners out there that put beautiful young plants in the ground in the spring, only to end up with an overgrown weed bed by August.
The best thing you can do for your harvest is make sure it actually can happen. I try not to think too much about the work maybe not being worth it in the end. Let me expand on that, there will usually be at least one or two things in your garden that you start but they simply don’t progress and in that situation it’s okay to pull those plants out but only if you have another plan for that area. This season I grew a whole section of rainbow bell peppers that never took off so in July I elected to tear them out and prep that area for my fall vegetables.
Always make it a priority to see through any of your food production all the way to harvest. If you don’t know if you can keep up with it don’t start it. Starting something you can’t finish is a great way to waste time, space, and money. My struggle this year was planting pole beans instead of bush beans. I had a total mental hiccup when I bought the pole bean seeds as we always grow bush beans and I had no climbing medium for the pole beans. I have, haphazardly, added climbing objects near the beans but I added them far too late and it will affect my harvest.
Tools are important
Anytime you are growing something new or if it’s something you’re familiar with but your growing A LOT more, think about what tools you need. We have two big beautiful apple trees that seem to be loaded with apples every other year. Well two years ago I was excited to get my first big apple harvest since buying my property, and I set out with a ladder to do some picking. I quickly realized I was ill prepared. The ground was far from flat turning my ladder idea into a botched suicide attempt. I also had brought a 5 gallon bucket out with me to put the apples in but once I was up on my death trap of a ladder it became impossible to get the apples from the tree to the bucket without bruising them horribly. Even though I had waited all summer for those apples to be ripe and had plenty of time to think about harvesting them, I was still unprepared for my harvest. This year I invested in a $9 fruit picker off amazon and used an extension pole to pick more than 5 times as many apples off the same trees.
Another tool I’ve found I can’t live without is an apple peeler. Luckily, during my small harvest two years prior, a family friend lent me their apple picker when they saw me hand peeling apples with a vegetable peeler. I acquired two beautiful apple peeler/slicer tools after that and my harvest this year was much easier.
Harvesting is hard work and may require some reinforcements
This is often a trial and error type of issue. Until you has some experience harvesting you won’t know how much time and man power it will take but it might be safe to invite a few friends over just in case. A great example I have of this is my boyfriend’s parents growing sweet corn. They typically grow more sweet corn than they could ever eat so in the past we’ve helped them pick, cook, and bag sweet corn in exchange for some free corn for our freezer. We have also done this regarding processing our chickens with a few friends, but don’t be afraid to not give away any of your harvest if you don’t want to. Some people resort to actually paying people to help them but we like to function on a favor swapping system. There’s nothing set in stone but we over to help our friends with their harvests and it’s implied that they will try to help with yours.
Time is a top commodity
Time is an unforgiving harsh reality. When it’s time to harvest you can’t negotiate with your plants or animals to give you more time. I suggest keeping some sort of calendar and plan to clear your social events if you can during harvest times. You will also need to watch the weather forecast as this could take a 5 day harvest window and take it down to an afternoon. When harvesting our turkeys this year we were battling a time crutch that involved our overgrown turkeys and my boyfriend being out of town almost constantly for work. We ended up carving out 1 afternoon that we had available to process these birds. This resulted in us packaging and weighing turkeys, in the dark at 10pm. Harvesting waits for no one.
Don’t forget about storage
Storage has become my nemesis. We have a large chest freezer, a small chest freezer, and a basement fridge/freezer combo in addition to our standard kitchen fridge/freezer combo. We never have enough freezer space this time of year. Historically, we’ve always preferred to freeze our garden veggies out of convenience but unless we want to invest in another freezer we need to go a different route. We’ve resorted to canning this year. Canning is quite the process and does require an upfront investment in jars and basic canning equipment. It also takes quite a bit of time when it comes to preparing the fruit or veggie, sterilizing everything, then actually canning it. While we are going to save freezer space we still need to put these cans somewhere so I also had to invest in a shelving unit in the basement. Remember that you can only eat so much fresh fruits and veggies so be sure to plan on where you will store your harvest.
Reviewing Your Harvest
This is the easiest step of harvest, reviewing what you did well and what you didn’t. Identifying what slowed you down or caused you to waste some of your harvest is no doubt useful information. Perhaps you had a great harvest. You were prepared and everything went smooth, but now your looking at a mound of, lets say butternut squash, that you’ll never eat in 5 years. So now you know to grow 75% less squash plants next year. Every step of homesteading is a learning experience and even a gang-buster harvest could provide you with great info to do even better next year!