Crop Waste: The Reason Why Some Produce is Never Harvested

Can the masses be fed when bottom-line-driven capitalism encourages crop waste?

"Crop shrink" is responsible for some food never making it off of the farm. (Image: David Sanger/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

Taking a wrong turn in California’s Monterey County can result in an overwhelming confrontation with the seemingly ordinary: Endless fields of lettuce, broccoli or cabbage.

If you’ve never been turned around trying to find an address outside of Salinas or Watsonville, look at the produce in your refrigerator, or what’s piled up at the farmers’ market or grocery store, and imagine multiplying it by a factor of hundreds, if not thousands. To see the produce fields there is like taking in a life’s worth of salad in a single glance; nearly 98,000 acres of leaf lettuce were grown in the County in 2011.

A new report financed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) looks at a little-studied element of the extensive agricultural production in both Monterey and the Central Valley: crop waste. Based on information gathered through anonymous interviews with 16 commercial shipping outfits, vegetable growers and fruit growers, the study shows that the bottom-line-driven capitalism of industrial-scale farming can be at stark odds with producing as much food for consumption as possible.

Monterey County’s 2011 harvest was worth $3.85 billion, according to the Agricultural Commissioner's annual crop report, an enterprise that brought $8.2 billion and 73,000 jobs to the county. But some of those profits were earned not by picking produce, but rather crop waste, leaving perfectly edible vegetables in field.

Broccoli, as one example, takes about three months to reach maturity, and markets can shift drastically between the day the seeds are sown and when the crop is harvested. The report explains that the labor and resources required to bring one acre to maturity costs $291,000. If the value of the broccoli crop, which one interviewee said he has seen swing from $6 to $32 per case, is such that spending the additional labor costs to bring the produce to market, it could make more financial sense to not harvest at all.

This is referred to as “pre-harvest shrink” or a “walk-by.” It may read like bad business, but when you consider the grand scale of the production, the lost investment is a wash. “In many cases,” the report states, “the fixed costs that go into a walk-by field are in aggregate smaller than the profit margin in a good year.

And it’s just one of the points in the farming and distribution process where significant amounts of potential food may be left behind. Crops that don’t conform to certain size and/or aesthetic standards are left in the field—“in-situ culls”—and harvested produce may end up not making it into the market due to so-called “packing culls.”

The report, which the NRDC stresses is more of a snapshot than an authoritative study, due to the small size of the group being examined, states that culled crops end up as animal feed, in a landfill, or being donated to food banks and similar organizations. “In one facility,” the report reads, “it was reported that approximately 1% of product was still on the dock at the end of the day which was donated or landfilled. As a one digit percentage this seems like the cost of doing business. But when that 1% is applied to the enormous volumes that are packed and shipped it translates into a substantial loss of resources and nutrition.”

The bottom line again seems to factor into where the unmarketable crop waste ends up. As the report tells it, “If volumes are too large for food banks within a reasonable distance to accommodate, it usually will end up in a landfill.”

TakePart spoke with the Food Bank for Monterey County in Salinas, however, and the anecdotal evidence seems to support the report’s attitude that more research on crop shrink is needed: It receives extensive donations from area farms, which are facilitated by the non-profit Ag Against Hunger (AAH). The Food Bank’s Leslie Sunny tells TakePart “We do a lot of produce distribution during the [growing] season, from about April to October,” with an estimated 90% of the items coming from area farms.

AAH is mentioned in the NRDC report as an outfit that’s trying to figure out how to better handle crops deemed unneeded or unwanted. AAH’s gleaning program, for example, brings volunteers to recently harvested or walk-by fields to pick whatever the farmers left behind, and donates it. Simple, low-effort donation systems like AAH's (which, according to the NRDC, harvested 144,000 pounds of produce in 2010) could make donating unwanted crops the easy option as compared to putting them in a landfill.

At the food bank in Salinas, produce brought in by AAH is redistributed to those in need through what Sunny tells TakePart is called a family market, “which is very similar to a farmers market—except ours is free.”

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