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Grading fresh produce

Produce grading is a uniform language between the buyer and the seller

When you go to a farmer’s market or buy produce off the farm, you assume a certain level of quality. When a farmer grades his crop, he’s basically telling the consumer what to expect in terms of produce size and quality.

Patrick Byers is an extension horticulture specialist at the University of Missouri. He says there are USDA grading standards that must be met for commercial growers. They’re less formal for a farmer who is direct-marketing, but are there as a guide to help them produce a consistent crop.

"If we could use tomatoes as an example, there are many, many different tomato cultivars and each one has its own unique characteristics," says Byers. "But when you’re marketing, say, a beefsteak-type tomato, or a slicer-type tomato, or a salad or grape-type tomato, then there’s an expectation as far as what that fruit should look like. And, anything that deviates from the expectation would be considered off-grade."

Sometimes you’ll see a basket of produce labeled as “seconds” or something to that effect. This produce doesn’t meet the farmer’s top grading standard and may be less expensive.

Grading produce by size is more of a challenge than by quality. What’s considered a good size for one person may not be for another.

"Farmer’s markets vary," says Byers. "Some are considered to be very high-end farmer’s markets where only fruits that meet the grade, or vegetables that meet the grade should be offered. Other farmer’s markets have clientele that’s looking for fruit that doesn’t meet the grade, and there’s a market for that as well. So, it is a bit complicated from the standpoint of the farmer."

Byers says he recommends that farmers consult the USDA’s grading specifications to get an idea of what the standards of quality and size are. But, they also have to consider the realities of their own production systems and markets, especially if they plan to move into a commercial market in the future.

Learn more about the USDA's grading standards of fresh produce

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