Farmers grow food and feed the world. Inherent in that process, however, is also a lot of waste. Both food and water are wasted on the farm, as well as everywhere else along the food chain. Decreasing the loss of edible food crops and eliminating water wasted in agricultural production are primary concerns nationally, as well as globally. The USDA’s Food Waste Challenge and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Food Recovery Challenge highlight the importance of this issue, as do numerous water conservation efforts led by various agencies, including the National Resource Conservation Service.

Sowing and reaping a harvest are inherently risky. Disease, pest, weather and lack of markets can all leave a farmer’s hard-earned assets in the dust. Calculating how much to plant, when to plant it, and where and how to sell it are all part of the risk. Managing that risk can go a long way to reducing food waste.

With water resources in the western regions of the United States at unprecedented low levels, the focus on water conservation is acute. Even those not growing in drought-impacted regions have increased their focus on proper, intelligent water usage, getting the right amount of water to the crops when and where they need it.

Farms and food waste

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The Natural Resources Defense Council has targeted food waste as one of its programming areas. The report, “Left-Out: An Investigation of the Causes and Quantities of Crop Shrink,” focuses on identifying and addressing the ways in which farmers themselves contribute to food waste, and discusses possible solutions. The report identifies crop shrink as “the difference between the volume of edible crops available for harvest and the volume entered into commerce for human consumption.”

Often, farmers plant more of a crop than they will ultimately need to protect against crop loss. If the crop is successful, excess produce may be left in the field. The lack of a viable alternative market, labor availability or the priority of harvesting a higher-value crop can all combine to leave useable, quality produce in the fields.

Some harvest may be left due to cosmetic imperfections, including standard sizing issues. Produce that does not meet standards might be considered unsaleable, and leaving it in the field eliminates sorting, cleaning, and storage of products that ultimately doesn’t meet market standards.

The manner in which product is sold can contribute to crop shrink. Farmers without contracts are left at the mercy of wholesale market pricing. If the market is flooded, leaving the crop in the field may be more lucrative than harvesting it and selling it at a low price. Direct-market farmers may not have enough customers to move as much of the crop as is ready for harvest. If the crop is highly perishable, or if the infrastructure for proper postharvest storage is not available, that crop won’t be sold, either.

Crops may also be harvested but damaged between harvesting and market. Improper harvesting, washing, packing or storage can severely impact shelf-life.

The NRDC report identified the drivers for crop shrink as overplanting; labor shortages; product grading; anticipatory packing; and shelf-life and spoilage. Reducing waste along these farm-to-market stages will allow more products to be consumed, not wasted.

Addressing crop shrink

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Consumer education can greatly reduce food waste once the crop reaches the market. Funny shapes, the “wrong” size or some cosmetic damage don’t render the food unsafe. While rotting food, or bruised or damaged products can be a food safety concern, many issues really are only skin deep.

Increasing the availability of local food processing venues can also decrease the amount of food waste. Food processors can not only use products, which may not meet cosmetic standards, but they can preserve the overplanted crop, possibly making it economically viable for farmers to harvest those crops now left in the field. Bumper crops that won’t fetch a premium on the auction market can be frozen or canned or made into value-added food products. Expanding on-farm or local processing infrastructure can provide value-added marketing channels that currently aren’t readily accessible for many farmers.

Harvest and postharvest handling of products can significantly impact the amount of food wasted. Farmworker education, as well as proper infrastructure, are crucial. Technology, such as the CoolBot, which can make it more affordable for small farmers to build cold storage facilities, is one way to keep more food out of the waste stream.

Better buyer-seller communication prior to planting could assist in farm planning, and reduce excess planted acres. Farmers don’t want to run the risk of not being able to fulfill a contracted buyer’s needs. Having a profitable secondary market on an as-available basis, such as a local food service that will purchase excess food directly from the farm rather than ordering it from their wholesale distributor, might be one creative solution.

Saving edible food

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Another solution is gleaning. Gleaning crops that cannot be harvested, whether due to lack of labor or high labor costs or a lack of an economically viable market, diverts edible crops from the waste stream, and provides food for a segment of the population that otherwise might not be able to access fresh produce.

Gleaning occurs in several places along the food chain. The first is in the field.

“We approach each of our farmers from a place respecting their time and energy spent growing the crops,” Jenn Simmons of the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link’s Glean Team, said. “Our services should never be seen as a burden from the farmer’s perspective. We provide all of our own harvesting and packing tools, follow good agricultural practices as set forth by the Vermont Gleaning Collective, and coordinate and manage our volunteers in a manner so that farmers can trust us to abide by their field rule and do no damage to surrounding crops.”

The RAFFL Glean Team diverted 25,000 pounds of food in 2014, working with 22 farms. Food is donated to over 20 organizations in the Rutland area, providing fresh produce to women’s shelters, housing facilities, senior centers, food pantries, parent-child centers and other charitable organizations that lack adequate resources to access fresh food. Donating the crop not only reduces the amount of food waste coming from the farm, but it also builds community.

“There is an incredible amount of value in involving community members to harvest produce at a local farm and experience the many shapes and sizes of high-quality crops,” Simmons said.

The team not only gleans fields that otherwise wouldn’t get harvested, but they also collect postharvest produce that hasn’t found a market and is short on shelf life, as well as produce left over at the end of the farmers’ market and not worth the effort of hauling back into storage. In the past, they have teamed up with other community groups to process some of the perishable crops by freezing it, allowing the food to be preserved and used off-season.

“Farmers have been appreciative in the assistance we offer in making sure food of high enough quality for human consumption is used for such. If anything, farmers worry that they might not be able to offer enough quantity to make our gleaning efforts worthwhile,” Simmons said.

Food waste: Banned

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Millions of tons of organic residues dumped into landfills are not only wasting space and causing runoff concerns but are not being put to their highest and best use. Better utilization of food resources and reducing waste upfront before it occurs is the first line of defense. Keeping organic residue out of the landfill through the development of alternative waste streams is next. Bans on organic waste, requiring that they are diverted from the landfill, are being implemented in many states.

The New England States are leading the nation in implementing bans prohibiting food waste from landfills. Bans are addressing large food waste producers like restaurants, food processors and supermarkets, and in some cases will evolve to include limitations on household organic waste.

Reducing the number of food residuals that enter the waste stream, as well as utilizing the food waste that remains in the waste stream in an environmentally-friendly manner are the goals. Landfill alternatives, including composting facilities and anaerobic digesters, are being developed to handle organic waste products, and farmers are poised to become a part of the solution.

Food waste can be used as a feedstock for commercial composting, or for anaerobic digesters. Food waste enhances methane production in anaerobic digesters. On-farm digesters are currently found primarily on dairy farms, as manure management and renewable energy resource.

Under anaerobic conditions, microbes break down the organic materials and produce methane, which is burned to generate electricity. The residual heat from this process can be captured and used in other applications. Byproducts include organic compost and fertilizer, which can be applied at the farm, or sold as another source of farm income.

By creating agricultural best management practices for small community-based, on-farm anaerobic digesters or composting facilities, rather than regulating such facilities under solid waste facility management protocols, farmers would have the opportunity to create renewable energy and valuable by-products. A report, “New England Food Policy: Building a Sustainable Food System,” released in March 2014 by American Farmland Trust, Conservation Law Foundation, and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, addresses some of these regulatory issues.

Where’s the water?

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Water is a limited resource. Water waste in crop production occurs when too much is used, it is used at the wrong time or it is allowed to runoff or evaporate and is diverted from the plant.

Reducing the amount of water used in crop production, as well as conserving what is used, has become an urgent issue. Targeted irrigation, dry farming techniques, growing crops adapted to a region’s existing climate conditions, better monitoring and understanding of a crop’s essential water needs, enhanced soil ecology and water-retention properties, and even the use of recycled water, are all techniques which can help to reduce agricultural water use. Water-saving practices aren’t only practical. They are needed to keep many farms in production.

The University of California Cooperative Extension Small Farm Program has a comprehensive guide to irrigating vegetable crops. It covers pre-irrigation, irrigation timing, irrigation design, equipment use and calibration, soil moisture and retention, and the water needs of various crops. Crops don’t always need water. Needs vary from crop to crop and throughout any given crop’s lifecycle. Over-application of water can decrease yield and increase disease pressures, as can under-application.

Pacific Institute is one organization leading the way with reducing water waste and water usage on California’s farms. Also available is a database of case studies of various water-saving practices, including videos. The 11,000-acre Sea Mist Farms in Salinas Valley is one of the featured farms. The farm has successfully utilized recycled water for almost a dozen years.

Like food waste, water can be recycled. Reclaiming water can occur via several different treatment methods. Some reclaimed water can be safely used on orchard crops or in other situations where there is no contact between the food and the recycled water. There are, however, procedures that render recycled wastewater safe for use on crops that come into direct contact with it, such as leafy greens.

Food and food waste begin with the farm. From the time crops are planted, the crop, as well as water resources needed to grow it, are often not fully utilized. Best practices for water management, strategies to decrease food loss, and efficient and environmentally sound practices to enhance the handling of food residues in the waste stream, are all needed. Farmers can lead the way in reducing, reusing and recycling our food and water resources. Farmers and food waste are coming full circle.