Agricultural Products Grader/Sorter  What They Do

Just the Facts

Graders and Sorters, Agricultural Products Career Video

Insider Info

dotWhen shipments of fresh produce arrive at wholesale centers, called terminal markets, disputes can arise between the seller and the buyer over the quality and condition of the shipments. This is where fruit and vegetable graders enter the picture.

"We're the impartial person that reports the facts on the load or the product," says Cathy Hance. She is the officer in charge of grading at the Hunt's Point terminal in New York.

"We're actually performing inspections, but we're called agriculture commodity graders," she adds.

dotMost graders work at terminal markets. But when requested, they also travel to distribution centers and even retail stores, providing service at many points along the food distribution chain.

They may perform inspections on product shipped from a packer to a wholesale receiver or from a wholesale receiver to a retail company.

dotBut just what does a grader do?

"Fresh produce graders pull random samples from a load in question, examine individual product specimens within each sample, identify any defects as outlined in U.S. grade standards or other specifications and prepare an official inspection certificate that documents the results of the inspection," says Rob Huttenlocker. He works with the fresh products branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

dotIt may sound like a fairly simple job. But graders must adhere to hundreds of grade standards for hundreds of commodities as regulated by the USDA.

"In addition, graders inspect numerous other commodities for which no U.S. grade standards exist [such as bananas] and here they must rely on experience and good reasoning to make good decisions," says Huttenlocker.

dotGrader Jeffrey Honey says working in a variety of locations presents physical challenges. "I have climbed into rail cars of carrots from California to retrieve a temperature recorder by crawling over the load 18 inches from the ceiling. I am not very fond of 100-pound sacks of potatoes when I have 15 samples to inspect. And I stand for hours at a time," he says.

dot"Because grading involves most of the senses, graders must be able to see, smell, taste and feel," says Huttenlocker.

dotAnd graders are early birds. Typically, they begin work at 5 or 6 a.m. Huttenlocker says overtime and weekend work for USDA graders is sometimes required, offering extra pay at higher rates.

dotThe results of an inspector's report are important to anyone financially involved in the shipment. The report determines grade, and therefore price, of the commodity.

However, the impartial inspections are often controversial.

"Nine times out of 10, someone is not happy," says Hance.

She says patience is an important quality for graders. They must also stick to accurate reporting of the facts. "A sound work ethic and high integrity are essential characteristics," says Huttenlocker.

dotKathleen Staley has many years of experience as a federal grader. She says graders must balance a cordial, professional relationship with the fact that they must remain impartial. "It is important that there is no perception of favoritism being shown," she says.

Just the Facts

Want a quick overview of what this career is about?Check out Just the Facts for simple lists of characteristics.

At a Glance

Give the food a grade

  • You need to be assertive
  • Work typically begins at 5 or 6 a.m.
  • Degrees in agriculture, food science or related fields are helpful, but not essential