The goal of this two-year project is to increase the economic and environmental sustainability of produce growers by developing and disseminating approaches to utilize produce that typically goes unharvested. Fruit and vegetables that never reach the consumer represent losses of water, chemical inputs, labor, and land, in addition to the loss of nutrient-dense, recoverable food. Measuring, understanding, and ultimately reducing farm-level production losses can benefit the environment, the profitability of the grower, and society. This project takes a supply chain approach—with research and education activities along the supply chain from farm through intermediary buyers and commercial food preparers—with the goal of identifying and piloting economically efficient ways to minimize production loss, and, in turn, augment farm revenues. Produce lost at the farm-level can be broadly classified as three types: Cosmetically Imperfect (CI) produce (outside the tolerance for USDA #1s or other buyer specifications due to surface scarring, shape and size, but that is otherwise edible, at the correct stage of maturity, and safe for consumption); product that meets USDA #1 and other highest-quality buyer specifications, but is left in the field because harvesting costs exceed the market price at a given point in time (here referred to as Less than Price Point product (LPP)); and inedible product only suitable for animal feed, energy production, or field-tilling. This project focuses on the two categories appropriate for human consumption.
Quantities of LPP and CI produce left in the field can be significant, yet we currently lack a reliable means to measure this volume. Even the sizable and widely reported figure of 40% food waste in the U.S. does not account for on-farm losses. Quantifying these losses will provide important missing information to policy makers, help to facilitate new market development for producers, and give growers field-specific data to assess if additional marketing or more intensive harvesting would benefit their particular business.
This project will enhance farm economic and environmental sustainability by achieving the following objectives: (1) Provide produce growers with easy-to-utilize protocols to determine the quantity of less than price point (LPP) and cosmetically imperfect (CI) product left in their fields, (2) Conduct economic analysis to understand the impact on farmer profitability of harvesting/selling LPP and CI product, (3) Capitalize on existing relationships with produce buyers including processors to identify win-win scenarios to bring edible but unharvested produce to market, (4) Develop, field test, and economically evaluate a mechanical harvest-aid to efficiently clear and sort product from fields after major harvesting is completed, and (5) Translate and disseminate protocols and outcomes into video and text how-to guides for growers, agricultural educators, researchers, and food recovery organizations. Knowing what volume is lost on-farm and why is a first step to utilizing more of the crop. Connecting this knowledge to the downstream components of the food supply chain—to wholesaler/distributors, processors, and their grocery and food service customers—helps to ensure that our recommendations reflect real-world business circumstances, and that our findings will be adopted and institutionalized at the systems level.
This project has four objectives that require research, with a fifth being translation and dissemination of research findings to those who can make use of the information generated. In year one we specifically tackled three of these four objectives (the fourth is related to construction and testing of equipment, which will occur in year two). The first objective is to provide produce growers with easy-to-utilize protocols they can use to determine the quantity of edible/marketable produce that remain in the fields. This objective was accomplished with in-field measurement on cooperating produce farmers, with 60+ fields measured in the first year of the project, adding to 40 measured the prior year (the latter funded through a SSARE Graduate Student Award). This research was used to create a field measurement protocol for growers, with a guide to this protocol provided in a NC Cooperative Extension publication, and in two short how-to videos (publication and videos are submitted as part of this year’s outputs). The protocol and findings from the 100+ fields were presented at the North Carolina Vegetable Growers Association Meeting. The second objective is to conduct economic analysis to understand the impact on farmer profitability of harvesting and selling edible/marketable produce that is typically left in the field. This information is gathered with repeated interviews with cooperating farmers, spreadsheet analysis, and discussion with farmers to understand decision-making on harvest/sale and the degree to which price and/or cost for particular products would need to change to justify additional harvests. In year one we conducted interviews and data collection with six large (300-1000 acres) produce farmers in NC and have constructed spreadsheets, which we are now currently fact-checking with these farmers. We have also constructed detailed supply chain maps for key southeastern crops which are key to understanding how and why some product moves out of the field, while others remain. In year two we will complete the economic analysis with these farmers and present these findings at conferences and grower meetings, and we will complete the same exercise with mid-scale family farmer (approximately 50 acres) and a grower cooperative. The third, related, objective, is to work with supply chain intermediaries (e.g., produce buyers, processors, food service, alternative markets) to identify win-win scenarios to bring edible but unharvested product to market. This objective is accomplished with data-collection interviews with our cooperating intermediary partners, as well as development of new partners. In year one we focused upon our regional produce wholesale/distributors, a commissary kitchen, and two smaller processors as potential markets for large-farm outputs. We will be putting the price/demand information from these interviews together with the price/supply information from our farmer cooperators to understand what win-win opportunities exist. We have also conducted interviews with alternative markets, in particular a seconds CSA company, and with food banks that have begun to pay farmers for seconds product. Our strategy to accomplish each of our objectives is to take a supply chain approach, working with growers, intermediaries, and buyers, to find win-win solutions to move more edible product out of the field.
Please see above discussion that provides an update on our progress for year one. We will be able to supply results and discussion later in year 2 of this project.
Our approach is to provide workable strategies for farmers and others in the produce supply chain so that more product can be moved out of the field. This year we completed work on objective 1: creation of an easy-to-use protocol for field measurement of seconds, which can be used by farmers and others to accurately estimate product left in the field. The educational materials associated with these are a NC Cooperative Extension publication and two short how-to videos.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Newsletter and Press Release:
* “New CEFS/SSARE Initiative Tackles Farm-Level Food Loss.” Center for Environmental Farming Systems Supply Chain and Business Development Newsletter, March, 2018.” https://www.ncgrowingtogether.org/news/new-cefs-initiative-tackles-farm-level-food-loss/
* Press release, February 19, 2018: https://cefs.ncsu.edu/new-center-for-environmental-farming-systems-initiative-tackles-farm-level-food-loss/
· Field Measurement and Qualitative Inquiry Indicate Need for Reevaluation of U.S. On-farm Food Loss Estimates. No Food Left Behind Conference, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California, Mar. 2, 2018.
· Measuring and Estimating Food Loss in North Carolina Vegetable Crops. USDA-ERS Workshop on Farm-to-Retail Food Loss in Produce, Washington, DC. Dec. 12, 2017.
· Opportunities to Market a Wider Range of Produce Quality. Vegetable & Fruit Expo, North Carolina Vegetable Growers’ Association Annual Meeting, Myrtle Beach, SC, Nov. 28, 2017.
* Whole Crop Harvest: Increasing Farmer Returns and Reducing Food Waste. National Value-Added Agricultural Conference, Little Rock, AK. Nov 15, 2017.
· Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s Building Infrastructure for Farm Level Surplus Working Group, webinar, July 18, 2017.
Increased skill in accurately measuring the amount and quality of produce remaining in the field after 'final' harvest.
Increased awareness of and specific knowledge about where they could sell and donate seconds/cull products.
The purpose of this project is to increase the economic and environmental sustainability of fruit and vegetable production with research and education activities focused on quantifying and utilizing produce that typically goes unharvested. Reducing the amount of product left in the field contributes to economic and environmental sustainability, making use of resources already invested in the product.
Over the first year the project team has conducted formal (recorded and transcribed) interviews with a set of 6 large-scale diversified produce growers (300=1500 acres), three regional fresh produce wholesale/distributors, four food bank representatives, a seconds CSA operation, and two small-scale produce processors; and held informal interviews with 15+ chefs including dining management at institutional dining operations. Additionally, work investigating the “salvage” grocery store market has begun, with visits to six stores (related to two salvage store chains in NC, with one of these having approximately 30 stores in Southern Appalachia).
Supply chain maps have been completed for eight core NC and southeastern fruit and vegetable crops and preliminary costs/returns spreadsheets have been created and will be shared and discussed with three key large-scale farm cooperators this spring to verify the figures and calculations. All growers contacted (30+) in relation to the project have been supplied with a list of local and Mid-Atlantic buyers of seconds and the project team will continue to support the building of supply chain connections in year two, informed by the economic analysis. The in-field measurement protocols are complete, with an extension publication already in circulation, along with two instructional videos. These and other resources are located on the project’s website. The project also created a brochure that can be circulated at the numerous extension and other outreach events at which the Center for Environmental Farming Staff are present.
With much of the data collection related to larger-scale produce growers and wholesale distributors concluding, we are now beginning work with two independent smaller-scale growers and a set of small/mid-scale organic growers associated with a grower/distributor cooperative. In conjunction with these entities we have brought on Compass Group food service company as a new partner, specifically their Bon Appeitit dining division. Compass Group has an Imperfectly Delicious Program (IDP), which encourages the use of less-than-perfect produce. As well, each Bon Appetit institutional dining account must source 20% of its product locally. No percentage for IDP has been set, but chefs note that their ideal is to purchase larger amounts of both local and IPD—that this would be the ideal mix. Over the coming months we will be testing this piloted supply chain concept between the smaller growers and grower coop, and the Bon Appetit dining accounts in the Raleigh area. This applied research both investigates the supply chain for seconds/cull product, while also building that supply chain.
Preliminary information on interest and willingness of foodservice operations to pay for imperfect product is being used as the basis for a national survey of Chefs (whose positions include purchasing decisions) to develop a more comprehensive understanding of these issues. It is anticipated that this national survey will be distributed this summer. The potential for increased availability of imperfect produce to have aggregate market impacts will also be examined. Price and yield information about the 10 targeted crops has been collected. Information from the national survey (mentioned above) will be used in an analysis to estimate the elasticity of substitution between CI and “perfect” produce. With this information, aggregate market outcomes (price and quantity demanded) will be estimated.
We are one year into the project and have made good progress. We believe recommendations will differ based on the scale of farm and type of crop (and characteristics of that crop), and we will be able to discuss these as we continue with the work in year two.