HARVESTING. Harvesting is the act of removing a crop from where it was growing and moving it to a more secure location for processing, consumption, or storage. Some root crops and tree fruit can be left in the field or orchard and harvested as needed, but most crops reach a period of maximum quality—that is, they ripen or mature—and will deteriorate if left exposed to the elements. While the major factor determining the time of harvest is the maturity of the crop, other factors such as weather, availability of harvest equipment, pickers, packing and storage facilities, and transport are important considerations.
Economic and marketing issues are often even more important than considerations of maturity in deciding when to harvest a commodity. Before the crop can be harvested, the grower must be sure that there is a demand for the crop and that the price is sufficient to make harvesting the crop profitable. If the price is less than adequate to cover the costs of production, harvesting, and marketing, growers are faced with the difficult decision whether to harvest and store the crop, to wait for a better market, or to cut their losses and leave the crop in the field.
The Process of Harvesting
Harvesting can be separated into three steps. The plant part of interest must be identified, detached from the rest of the plant, and then collected in a container suitable for transport from the field. The harvesting of all the major agronomic crops (grains of cereals and legumes) has been mechanized. The resistance of dried cereal and legume seeds (for example, corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans) to physical damage allows the first and second steps to be combined in a threshing machine or combine that separates the seeds from the rest of the harvested plant. The grain (seeds) is then loaded in bulk containers and transported to silos for additional cleaning, grading, fumigation, and temporary storage.
In contrast to the dry grains and legumes, most horticultural crops (fleshy fruits such as apples and tomatoes, ornamentals, and vegetables) are hand harvested for the fresh market. Some mechanical harvesting is done, but the damage incurred is usually so severe that the fruits and vegetables are only fit for processing. Some fruits (for example, apple, pear, and tomato) evolved to ensure seed distribution by enticing animals to eat the attractive (in appearance, aroma, and flavor) fruit. Therefore, they are almost always attached to the plant by a specialized structure that contains an "abscission zone" which permits the ripe fruit to be easily separated from the tree. Other fruit, such as bananas, citrus, peppers, and all vegetables (for example, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, and squash) do not develop an abscission zone and must be cut from the plant.
Only human beings have the unique combination of eyes, brain, and hands that permits the rapid identification and harvest of delicate and perishable materials with minimal loss and bruising. Some mechanical aids such as cherry pickers, ladders, picking bags or baskets, stem clippers, and wheelbarrows are used by harvesters to make their work easier, faster, and safer. Harvesters can be trained to select only those fruits or vegetables that are of the correct maturity, size, or shape, thus greatly reducing the amount of material that must be removed on the sorting and grading line in the packing shed. In fact, many vegetables and berries are harvested directly into retail containers without further sizing or grading. Most other horticultural crops are harvested into field bins that are taken to packing sheds where the commodities are cleaned, sorted, graded, inspected, packed, cooled, and stored before being transported to regional markets.
The Social Importance of the Harvest
The time of harvest is one of the most important phases of the agricultural calendar since it marks a point in time when the crops have survived natural disasters and are ready to be gathered in. The period in late summer just before the harvest could be a time of famine because of poor harvests the preceding season or an inability to store food from the last harvest. It is not surprising then that the fall harvest festivals were such joyous times, for they heralded the end of this all too frequent seasonal famine and ushered in a time of plenty. There have been harvest celebrations for as long as people have gathered seasonally abundant food for storage and later consumption. Cultures as diverse as the Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, Mayan, and Roman developed elaborate harvest customs that included songs, rituals, prayers, and special dishes.
Thanksgiving Day is perhaps the most universally observed harvest ritual in the United States and Canada, although these days are not communal in the sense of traditional village feasting. In the United States, Thanksgiving Day celebrates the first harvest of Dutch and English settlers who arrived in America almost four hundred years ago aboard the Mayflower. About fifty years before these Pilgrims, the observation of another Thanksgiving Day was started in what is now Newfoundland. Centuries later they were recognized as official holidays in their respective countries. However, for thousands of years before the European invasion, Native Americans had developed many traditional harvest celebrations. The Wampanoag Indians who inhabited the site occupied by the Pilgrims had three thanksgiving harvest festivals during the year: one for the maple tree and its syrup, one for picking berries, and one for the food they had grown and gathered that year.
County and regional fairs were often scheduled after the harvest so local farmers could sell some of their harvest to merchants, exchange experiences about the previous season, learn new farming techniques, exhibit their finest crops, compete for awards, and generally engage in a communal celebration. Other harvest-related events included parades, special religious services, and a large feast with traditional native dishes. In North America these include cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, succotash, sweet corn, pecan pie, turkey, and wild rice stuffing. Succotash is a native North American dish that can be prepared today by combining whole-kernel sweet corn with Lima or broad beans in a sauce made from cream and flour. The cream (1 cup) and flour (¼ cup) are boiled for a few minutes with constant stirring, and then the sweet corn (one cup) and beans (2 cups) are added and the mixture heated for another 8 minutes. Addition of meat stock, bits of meat, green peppers, squash, and seasoning transforms this basic recipe into the many regional variations consumed throughout Eastern North America.
The Harvest Home celebrations of earlier times are dying out as the number of people engaged in farming declines because of mechanization, and as urban populations become disconnected from the actual growing of crops. In the past, the whole rural community worked together to harvest crops before the storms of late autumn arrived. The first or last fruits of the harvest were often accorded special religious significance and either offered to the gods, or kept safe as a talisman to be used to protect the planting of the crop next season. Cutting of the last sheaf and carrying it in procession to shelter symbolized the bringing of the harvest home, and was greeted with great rejoicing accompanied by music, dancing, and elaborate feasting. One of the traditional Harvest Home dishes was frumenty, a wheat pudding made with boiled milk, almond extract, honey, egg yolk, and raisins. The milk (1¾ cup), almond extract (½ teaspoon), and honey (2 tablespoon) are brought to a boil, the heat reduced, and the cracked wheat (1 cup) added with stirring until all the liquid is absorbed (about 15 min.). The yolk of one egg is then stirred in and ¼ cup of raisins is added. The pudding is served either hot or cold.
See also Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Horticulture; Thanksgiving.
Jackson, Ellen B. The Autumn Equinox: Celebrating the Harvest. Highland Park, N.J.: Millbrook Press, 2000.
Kavasch, E. Barrie. Enduring Harvest: Native American Foods and Festivals for Every Season. Old Saybrook, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 1995.
Penner, Lucille R. The Thanksgiving Book. New York: Hastings House, 1986.
Mikal E. Saltveit
Celebrations of harvests safely gathered in formed part of many rural traditions for centuries. The feast of Michaelmas (29 September) marked the end of the farming year when annual accounts were rendered. However, ‘harvest festivals’ in churches with special services and elaborate decorations only became formally part of many Christian church calendars during the 19th cent.
Yields of crops have increased since the Middle Ages arising from the selective breeding of plants and animals particularly since the early 18th cent. From the mid-19th cent. manufactured fertilizers and various technologies have enabled expansion of output. For example, yields of wheat from seed sown in the early 14th cent. were seldom more than eightfold whereas in the later 20th cent. yields reached fortyfold. In the 20th cent. mechanization reduced sharply the numbers of people needed to harvest most crops, and bringing in the harvest no longer concerns most city-dwellers.
Ian John Ernest Keil