Smallholder Academy · Module 1

Harvesting, Grading and Transport

Module 1: Harvesting, Grading and Transport


1) Background

What determines the income of an oil palm farmer?

The amount of fresh fruit bunches (FFB) produced

Usually this is about 1–2 tonnes per hectare per month, or 15–25 tonnes per hectare per year.

The ripeness and quality of the bunches

A lower price will be paid for unripe bunches, overripe bunches, damaged bunches, very small bunches and bunches with a long stalk.

The quality of the oil, in particular the concentration of ‘free fatty acids’ (FFAs) that make the oil go rancid

If the bunches are harvested too late, or if they are left by the roadside for more than 24 hours, the concentration of free fatty acids will increase beyond what is acceptable on the international market. The maximum concentration of free fatty acids in the oil is 5%.

The oil extraction rate (OER) of the fresh fruit bunches, which is the quantity of oil that the mill can get out of the fruit bunches

The usual oil extraction rate for a ripe tenera bunch from a mature tree is between 22–24 percent, or 220–240 kg of oil per tonne of fresh fruit bunches. Dura bunches, unripe bunches, small bunches, and damaged bunches contain less oil. Long stalks soak up the oil and therefore reduce the oil extraction rate.

Other factors beyond the direct control of the farmer

  • The fresh fruit bunch price as set monthly by the government
  • The relationship between the farmer or cooperative and the mill
  • The presence of traders or middlemen who take a share of the profit
  • The distance between the plantation and the mill
  • The quality of the road
  • How many fresh fruit bunches the mill receives (in peak season, the prices go down


What are good harvesting practices?

Good harvesting practices are practices that result in large quantities of fresh fruit bunches harvested, high oil extraction rates, and good quality oil.

Good harvesting practices include:

  • Harvesting using correct procedures (frond cutting, bunch cutting)
  • Harvesting only ripe bunches
  • Good and fast transport of the bunches to the mill
  • Limited loss of loose fruits in the field or during transport (loose fruits have an oil content of more than 40 percent)

The free fatty acid content will be less than 5% if harvesting standards are followed; in particular it is important to ensure fast transportation to the mill and harvesting fruit at the correct ripeness.

For good transportation, the roads need to be maintained. While road maintenance can require large investments, bad conditions can make transportation of the harvest slow and more expensive.

To avoid loss of fruit bunches or oil quality during its transport to the mill, the cooperatives, farmer groups or traders should set clear rules which include:

  • Quality of the truck
  • Speed of transportation
  • Covering of full trucks with a net

Figure 1: Delivered bunches, ready to be processed in the mill


2) General Notes on Grading and Sorting

In the palm oil supply chain, farmers or plantation companies sell oil palm fruit to mills. The mills extract the oil (CPO) and sell it to a national or international buyer.

Please note: everyone will get a better price if the harvested fruit bunches are according to standard. Good bunches are of correct ripeness, correct size, not damaged by pest or insects, without long stalks, and delivered to the mill within 24 hours of harvesting.

In Indonesia, the government decides every month what price the mills should pay for fresh fruit bunches. The official oil palm fresh fruit bunch price depends on the following factors:

  • The crude palm oil price
  • The palm kernel oil price
  • The age of the bunches (due to its influence on the oil extraction rate)
  • The percentage of the selling price that goes to the farmers (also known as “K”)

Mills have two systems to compensate for low oil content or poor oil quality, namely grading and sorting. Grading is usually done once a month while sorting is done for every truck that arrives at the mill. Grading and sorting of oil palm fruit bunches normally follow the procedure below:

  • Specialised staff from the mill takes a sample of fruit bunches (for example, 10% of the bunches)
  • The fruits are examined to assess the quality of the fruit bunches
  • Poor quality fruit bunches, for example bunches that are unripe or very small, are given a deduction (usually in kilograms) because they produce less oil. Empty bunches are rejected

Grading is done once a month to decide on a general deduction that is given to everyone who delivers to the mill (including the companies). Sorting is done for every truck to determine the deduction for that truck. In conclusion, each delivery gets two deductions: the one from the grading and the one from the sorting.

3) Harvesting


  • Be able to cut and collect all ripe fruit bunches in a plantation
  • Be able to harvest fresh fruit bunches without damaging the fruit and the palm
  • Be able to get fresh fruit bunches with excellent oil content and quality
  • Be able to get maximum profit from harvested fresh fruit bunches


  • All ripe fruit bunches are harvested at every harvesting round
  • Harvesting is done at least once every 10 days
  • Bunches are harvested at the right time and ripeness and in the right way, without causing damage to the bunch and the palm
  • The minimum ripeness standard of 1–4 loose fruits per bunch is followed (only if harvesting is done at least every ten days)
  • Stalks are cut to less than 2 cm in length
  • The quantity of harvested fresh fruit bunches is correctly recorded at each harvest

Timing and Frequency

  • All year round
  • Once every 7–10 days

Please note: Many farmers harvest once every two weeks, but this will not give the maximum bunch yield. Some bunches will get overripe during the waiting period, and loose fruits are more likely to get scattered on the ground, so they take more time to collect and some will be lost amongst the weeds. Harvesting more frequently is the fastest and easiest way to improve the yield.1

Labour time required

Harvesters work most efficiently in teams organised into the following roles:

  • One person for harvesting and frond stacking
  • One person for collecting the fresh fruit bunches, cutting off long stalks, stacking bunches by the roadside and marking them (if necessary)
  • One person for collecting loose fruits (can be the same person as the one who collected the fresh fruit bunches)

The speed of harvesting depends on the palm age2:

  • Palms less than 5 years after planting: around 300 bunches per harvesting team per day
  • Palms between 6–12 years after planting: 150 to 200 bunches per harvesting team per day
  • Palms more than 12 years after planting: 100 to 150 bunches per harvesting team per day

In the low season less bunches per day can be harvested because it takes more time to walk and search for bunches.

Materials and Equipment

  • Long pole with harvesting sickle, or chisel (for palms up to 2–3 m tall)
  • Axe or bush knife to chop the frond and the stalk;
  • Wheelbarrow or bicycle with buckets to transport the fresh fruit bunches
  • Hook or stake to pick up and move the fresh fruit bunches
  • Crayon (or similar) to mark the fresh fruit bunch stalks
  • Empty fertiliser bags to collect the loose fruit

Data recording

Proper yield recording is discussed and demonstrated in the next section. In addition, to keep track of the labour costs, every harvesting activity should be recorded in a log book as shown in the example below.


4) Weighing and transportation


  • Be able to keep good track of the production per plantation
  • Know exactly how much is produced, and of what quality
  • Be able to effectively transport the fresh fruit bunches and loose fruits from the field to the mill as soon as possible
  • Be able to get optimum oil quantity and quality


  • The yield of each plantation is recorded separately and clearly
  • The number of poor-quality bunches is recorded clearly and precisely
  • Fresh fruit bunches are transported to the mill on the same day as harvesting and no more than 24 hours after harvesting
  • All fresh fruit bunches arrive at the mill in good condition
  • No fresh fruit bunches or loose fruits are lost in transport

Timing and Frequency

  • Usually on the same day as harvesting
  • Sometimes on the morning after harvesting – but the bunches must arrive at the mill within 24 hours after harvesting
  • Once every 7–10 days, depending on the harvesting frequency

Labour time required

  • Weighing individually: 30 minutes per field
  • Weighing as cooperative: one morning or afternoon per kelompok
  • Transport time (and therefore labour requirement) depends on the distance to the mill and the road condition

Equipment and materials

Weighing and yield recording

  • Tripod with hanging scales
  • Tray or net to hold the fresh fruit bunches and the loose fruits
  • Notebooks and stationary

Transport from the field to the collection place:

  • Car or motorbike with carrying baskets

Transport from the collection place to the mill:

  • Good truck
  • Net to cover the truck
  • Loading hooks or stakes
  • Buckets or empty fertiliser bags for loose fruits

Data recording

Each harvest should be recorded carefully in a notebook or on a mobile phone or tablet. The table below can be used as an example.

Figure 2: Hanging scales for weighing the bunches. If available, strong digital scales are more precise.

Figure 3: Neatly loaded truck, but the load is too high and should have been covered with a net.