Food Waste: Quantifying on-farm vegetable losses

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2015: $10,206.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2017
Grant Recipient: North Carolina State University
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Dr. Nancy Creamer
North Carolina State University

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: cucurbits, tomatoes


  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development



    This project resulted in the development of a straightforward protocol that can be used in-field to estimate the volume of vegetable crops left behind after the primary harvest. A case study on a commercial North Carolina farm demonstrated the use of this protocol, indicating the volumes of underutilized vegetables can be higher than previously thought. Edible produce was left unharvested on the thirteen fields evaluated at an average estimated rate of 7,887 pounds per acre. Approximately 63% of this volume did not meet buyer standards. A two-year R&E grant was developed from this project and further research is underway.


    Currently, the most well-known statistic on food waste in the US is an estimate of 40%, which is a calculation using a model based on the difference between the available food supply and what is consumed (Gunders, 2012, Hall, et al., 2009). Feeding America estimates the amount of fruit and vegetables wasted each year in the US at about 6 billion pounds, and analysis of USDA data for unharvested acreage calculates that in North Carolina alone approximately 117 million pounds of produce were unharvested in 2013 (Feeding America, 2013; Reed, 2014). Losses at the farm level can be significant, however, there are no studies that we identified that quantify the volume of loss, and production level losses are not included in USDA food waste data, or other recent food waste studies (BSR, 2014; Buzby, et al., 2014; Gunders, 2012). Not only does the loss of specialty crops reduce farm efficiency and sustainability, but the recovery of those crops can increase farm profitability and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables.

    Quantifying food waste at the production level is the first step in reaching the ultimate goal of increasing production efficiency and improving profit and competitiveness for North Carolina and southeastern vegetable growers. Edible crops that do not meet grade standards can still be of very high nutritional quality, and could potentially be marketed to commercial or institutional kitchens, discount grocery stores, retail stores, or other industries. In order to analyze the quantity of losses on specialty crop farms in North Carolina, it is important to understand the role grade standards play in rejection of product on-farm and within the retail buying environment. USDA quality standards allow for standardization throughout the industry, are a marketing tool which provides a common language, assists producers and handlers in labeling, comprises the basis for reporting, helps settle disputes, and rewards top quality (Abbott, 1999; Kader, 2002). Despite the importance of standards, they tend to define quality according to aesthetic appearance, like shape and size, rather than flavor or nutritional value (Abbott, 1999; Kader, 2003). Quality standards are applied, and losses are incurred, by the grower, harvester, packer, distributor/wholesaler, retailer, produce manager, stocker, shopper, and eater (Abbott, 1999). However, the increasing popularity of farmers’ markets across the nation and in North Carolina suggests that consumers may be willing to purchase cosmetically imperfect produce.

    An increase in the global population is leading to calls for increases in crop yields. However, a more sustainable way to increase yield would be to reduce waste, improving efficiency in farming operations and food availability for consumers at the same time, and without an increase in inputs or acreage under production (Kader, 2003, 2005). Utilizing more of the crop will increase agricultural sustainability by directly increasing the human food supply, make the most use of on-farm resources, improving the economic viability of farm operations, and enhancing the quality of life for growers and society.

    This project uses field sampling to determine how much edible and marketable produce is left unharvested after the primary harvest has ended. Presenting the proposed research and methods to grower and agricultural professional audiences has increased awareness of food loss at the farm level. 

    Field evaluations for this case study have shown that the volume of marketable food remaining in the field can be high in comparison to the marketed volume, which could provide opportunity for growers to further profit from the crop they are already cultivating. Additionally, the volume of food that could be recovered for human consumption was much higher than the estimates discussed in previous studies, revealing the potential for recovery organizations to procure even more healthy food. Further research on the amount, types, and reasons for food loss at the farm level has been repeatedly recommended, and this study confirms that it is needed.

    Project objectives:

    1. Develop straightforward protocol that can be used to estimate marketable and edible potential of crops remaining in the field after the primary harvest has ended. 
    2. Determine volume of edible crops that remain in the field after harvesting to typical USDA standards for vegetable crops in North Carolina. Determine reasons behind the loss of these crops.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.