Farmers do their part to reduce food waste

ADDISON COUNTY — 2014 was a great year for cabbage in Vermont. Spencer Blackwell’s cabbages on Elmer Farm in Middlebury grew to be around 12 pounds each.
It was amazing to see, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sell the especially heavy heads of greens to any of his usual markets. He ended up “turning under” two-thirds of the cabbages, not harvesting them so that the nutrients from the germinated crops could be recycled into the soil.
While this was an anomaly for Blackwell, it happens regularly on farms throughout the state.
An estimated 14.3 million pounds of edible vegetables and berries may be lost each year in Vermont, according to new research from Salvation Farms of Morrisville and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. This food is either left unharvested in the fields, or is harvested but neither sold nor donated.
This estimate of food loss is substantially higher than Salvation Farms’ previous estimate that 2 million pounds of all crops are lost in Vermont each year.
“On-farm food loss,” stated the 2018 report, “happens when farmers can’t harvest, donate or sell everything they’ve grown — which has substantial environment, economic and nutritional costs.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that around 42 percent of North America’s food supply is wasted, and on-farm food waste represents around a third of that.
The new study presents the first empirical data on farm-level food loss in New England.
Salvation Farms asked 58 vegetable and fruit farms throughout Vermont four questions:
•  What percent of the vegetables and/or fruits, berries and nuts (henceforth crops) that grew on those (planted) acres did you harvest?
•  What percent of the crops left in the field (i.e., that you did not harvest) were edible? ?
•  What percent of the crops that you harvested did you sell? ?
•  What percent of the crops that you did not sell did you donate? ?
The results showed that 85 percent of available vegetables and fruits were harvested and 15 percent were not harvested; 16 percent of vegetables and 15 percent of fruits that were considered salvageable were crops that were either harvested, but not sold or donated, or were unharvested, but edible.
When farmers like Spencer Blackwell do not harvest their crops it is usually because the produce is blemished or they are not confident that they can sell the produce, according to the study.
It’s often not worth putting in the labor to harvest crops that can’t be sold.
Another local farmer, Hank Bissell of Lewis Creek Farm in Starksboro, said, “It’s difficult to put much effort into something you’re not getting any money for. There’s no return.”
“It’s slim profit margins in the food business to begin with,” Bissell added.
When farmers harvest their crops but cannot sell them, the lack of sales is usually due to a lack of demand, oversaturation of the market, or blemishes on the produce.
“There’s so much food in this county, so much high-quality food available. There’s absolutely no interest in low-quality food,” Bissell said.
Volunteer gleaning, or collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields before or after harvest for donation, is one solution that many local farmers employ to deal with food they are unable to sell.
One of the most robust gleaning programs in the county is run by Lily Bradburn at the organization known as HOPE (Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects).
Last year, 30 farms in Addison County donated food to HOPE’s Local Food Access Program through regular donations or gleaning, and around 15 farms donated regularly throughout the season.
Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham has hosted gleaners through HOPE multiple times.
“HOPE makes it so easy for us because they weigh everything and give us the report at the end of the year,” farmer Will Stevens of Golden Russet said. “(Bradburn) manages the crew, which is nice for me. It’s something I don’t have to do.”
Yet, not every situation is suitable for gleaning.
“Gleaning doesn’t work for tomatoes because we harvest them for five to six weeks, so I don’t always know in advance,” Stevens said.
Farmers often need gleaners to come on short notice, and organizations cannot always supply sufficient volunteers in time. 
“There’re only particular circumstances where that works out,” Bissell of Lewis Creek Farm said.
Additionally, 92 percent of farmers said they did not claim the federal tax deduction for donations that was extended to all farms in December 2015.
“It’s not an added incentive. We’re doing it regardless,” said Spencer Blackwell, who donated around 9,000 pounds of produce to HOPE last year.
Still, 62 percent of those surveyed in the study expressed interest in having the state of Vermont develop a program to provide additional financial compensation to farms for donating food.
With such an incentive, farmers might be able to harvest crops they would otherwise turn under, and donate them.
While the study acknowledged that not all food grown on farms can be recovered, it did note that the “quantities of farm-level loss suggested in this research indicate there might be great potential to prevent crop losses and to scale up food recovery efforts from farms.”
If you would like to get in touch with Lily Bradburn about volunteer opportunities or potential donations, you may reach her at [email protected].

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