A Supply Chain Approach to Finding Win-win Sustainable Solutions for Edible But Unharvested Produce

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2017: $219,971.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2020
Grant Recipient: North Carolina State University
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Rebecca Dunning
North Carolina State University Horticulture

Information Products


  • Vegetables: cabbages, cucurbits, greens (leafy), sweet potatoes, tomatoes


  • Crop Production: food processing, food processing facilities/community kitchens, Measurement of and markets for produce seconds and culls (sometimes referred to as food 'waste' or loss)
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: market study
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, food loss on-farm

    Proposal abstract:

    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.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    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.

    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.