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Five Reasons for Food Waste on the Farm

I read a lot about food waste. Most articles I see focus on consumers and how they can cut the amount of food that ends up in the trash can. 

I attended a conference where one of the speakers presented a talk on food waste. While most of her talk focused on the consumer, she did spend a few slides talking about food waste at the farm level.  

One thing she said was that the mechanical harvesting of fruits and vegetables leaves a lot of food in the field. I started thinking about the few produce crops that are harvested by machine here and what they would leave behind.  

White potatoes are dug and harvested by machine. Certainly smaller potatoes might fall through the digger. Some farmers are mechanically harvesting blueberries, but here in North Carolina that is usually at the end of the season when all the fruit on the shrub is ripe – and most of that is used for processing. A small percentage of sweet potatoes is harvested by machine, but again, those are all sent for processing.

Really, food waste at the farm can't be blamed on machines alone. After giving it some thought, I've come up with five reasons for food waste at the farm.

1.  Food Safety Rules

Last year, I took a group of food writers on a tour of farms. At one farm, we each strapped on buckets and prepared to pick grape tomatoes. As the farmer was giving us instructions, she told everyone if the fruit fell on the ground or on the plastic, we had to leave it there.  

The reason was because of food safety rules. This farm is GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) audited and certified. As part of its food safety program, produce that touches the ground is not to enter the food chain. I've heard apple, peach, and pear farmers say the say thing. 

This is not a bad thing. Food safety has always been important, and all farmers should have their own food safety plan. To me, this emphasizes the difference between a gardener and a farmer. In my home garden, if I knock a tomato off the vine while picking, I'm going to pick it up and add it to my bucket. On a farm selling to consumers, if it hits the ground, it doesn't enter the human food chain.

2.  Weather

Mother Nature has her hand in all parts of agriculture, and food waste is no exception. Two years ago, we had an extremely wet spring during strawberry season. I talked to many farmers who had to send workers out the day after a big rain to pull the ripe strawberries off the vine and toss them. The reason was that we'd had so much rain, the berries were full of water, so they would not have a good taste and would not have stored well.

That same year, I posted about Hurricane Matthew, which put many sweet potato fields under water just as harvest was in full swing. Many of those could not be dug. In some cases, the sweet potatoes rotted in the ground. In others cases, the crop could not be harvested because the fields were flooded by water from creeks, streams, or other bodies of water. According to the Food and Drug Administration, those sweet potatoes cannot be sold for human consumption. 

3.  Damage

I've looked out over our sweet potato fields after harvest and thought to myself, "Gosh, there are a lot of sweet potatoes still in the field." And, yes, there were some good roots that weren't picked up. But once I really started looking, it was easy to see why workers left most of what I was seeing in the field. Many of the leftovers were cut by the plow during digging or were damaged in some way. Damaged sweet potatoes are an invitation to rot in storage, and the rot will spread in the bin, affecting other roots that did not have damage.

Many farmers invite gleaners to their fields after harvest to pick produce that is fit for human consumption that was left behind. Much of the produce gleaned is donated to food banks.

4.  Lack of Labor

I could tell you stories from farmers I know, but this article about labor shortage affecting North Carolina apple farmers sums up the problem. Labor is an issue for farmers across the country.  Most fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand, at least now. I recently read an article about several companies working to develop a robot that picks strawberries. Our Extension specialist working with blueberries told me last week that more farmers are moving to mechanical harvest because of lack of labor.  

5.  The Consumer

I talked about this in a post I wrote last year after touring a strawberry farm. That day I asked the farmer why so many beautiful berries without any obvious signs of damage were lying on the ground. His response floored me. The berries were ripe, but were too small to meet the size consumers wanted to buy. All those beautiful berries went to waste because it would take too many to fill a clamshell.

As farmers, we don't want to have waste on the farm, but it happens. There is some waste we will never be able to prevent. There are also ways to utilize some of the produce that is fit for human consumption. I'll take a look at that in my next post.  

Until then, do you have any reasons for food waste at the farm level to add to this list?

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