On Farm Food Waste

There was an interesting article posted the other day about on-farm food waste. Go ahead and read it… I’ll wait.


O.K…. We’re back! I think the article raises some very valid points. No matter how conscientious we are as farmers and human beings, the production of our food has an impact on the world around us. As we seek to increase that production to feed a growing population, we will not be  able to allow the impacts to continue to grow at the same rate. We need to get better at this.

Much of the food wasted in this world is lost in the supply chain, or even “post consumer.” More food goes to waste in my refrigerator than gets wasted in the orchard. (At least in relative terms.) I don’t know if I am better or worse than the average consumer, but it feels like I throw out a lot of food.

I don’t think the major breakthroughs in preventing food waste are going to come at the farm level. The study mentioned in the Civil Eats article suggests a range of waste between 1% and 30%. This is a frustratingly large range: Is the problem trivial or catastrophic?

For those keeping track at home, here are some quick insights into food waste at Petty Ranch. About 1% of our avocados are “culls”, not usuable for food. Lemons can have a high percentage that is not sold as fresh fruit, but that quantity, up to 30%, gets used for “products”… everything from lemonade to detergent. Harder to measure are our figs. Birds and other pests may damage or destroy 10% of our crop. (That’s a very rough guess.) On the other hand, we have sold a small quantity of “unmarketable” figs for pickling, and gathered beans, peas, and other crops from our covercrops that are really there to improve the soil. In theory, we could someday have negative waste… more than offsetting crop waste by capturing value in the “byproducts” of our farming operations. I don’t know that we’ll get there.

But I do know that farmers have as big an incentive to avoid waste as anyone.

Agribusiness and Change: Or thanking T. Rex for your Breakfast

You  know, I’ve never liked the term “agribusiness”. Business has always been a component of agriculture. Yes, it entails land stewardship, and crop science, and just good, old-fashioned hands-in-the-dirt work. But those of us who do it for a living have no reason either to feel apologetic for wanting to make a profit, or feel inferior because we don’t wear expensive suits in a glass and chrome office. “Agribusiness” is useful for vilifying corporate farming, or for making insecure farmers or businessmen feel more important. I’m not much interested in either.

What I am interested in is a return to grass roots, bottom up, entrepreneurial farming. And while I appreciate the support and enthusiasm of foodies, academics and policy wonks, what we really need are people who have an enthusiasm for this business. In the part of my life spent in Silicon Valley, I observed an ethos that changing the world and making a profit did not need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, it was generally felt that making the world a better place was precisely what entitled you to significant financial rewards. (I’ll grant that some people in the Valley got a little bit drunk on this Kool-Aid, but I still like the philosophy, at least in moderation.)

This is why I was very happy to read a piece that Rob Smart posted on Civil Eats. Real change will not come externally and it will not come with a single lightning bolt from on high. Farms and small businesses will be the ones that create the models and the relationships and the innovations that will transform our present food system, just a bit at a time, until we have something much better than we have today. While I hope the pace of change will be rapid, I do believe it will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Let’s imagine the food system we want as being represented by a chicken.

Small. Adaptable. Friendly. Managable. Chickens are the embodiment of local scale. There is a reason that they are the iconic emblem of the idealized happy barnyard.

But what is the ancestor of this chicken? The fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Huge. Predatory. Not very pleasant to interact with, I would imagine. A good representation of today’s food system perhaps? I think so. How did we get from T. Rex to the Rhode Island Red?

Despite the occasional meteor or ice-age, it happened just one little innovation at a time.