Saturday, July 9, 2016

Food Waste on the Farm

  The reality is not every cucumber is perfect.  Neither is every tomato or potato.  And there is no doubt about the carrots: so many of them grow extra legs or twist around each other, you start to think they want to look funny.  In the vegetable garden, and in fact, all over the farm, perfection is rare.  Over-sized, under-sized, bug bitten, rotten spots - there are endless opportunities for something to fall off the perfection pedestal.  So what is a farm to do?  The most common option on farms in America, even small organic farms, is to  leave it in the field, pick it and drop it.   If it doesn't meet market expectations, it's often not worth the time to do any more with it.  But for us, leaving it in the field is the last resort.  Waste is painful to the bottom line and to the morale of the farmers.  So we farm in a way where things rarely go to waste.
  One option is to sell it anyway.  While we want to give our customers really good food, the truth is many imperfections have little effect on the quality of the product.  In a blind taste test, people probably couldn't taste the difference between a crooked cucumber and a straight one.  So while we put out the prettiest produce at the market first, if we run out of those, then we may bring out the others.  It's always reassuring to us at the end of the tomato season when the tomatoes are small and full of character, how eagerly you all still buy them, quickly dismissing our apologies and saying "at least they are homegrown."  How it was grown outweighs how it looks, especially when other homegrown options are scarce.  So sometimes we bring ugly things to market. 
  We also sell seconds through the preserving share option of the Full Farm CSA.  Through the season, members receive preserving quantities of produce, typically at a reduced price.  These are often second quality, most often for cosmetic issues.  But sometimes we pass along preserving shares of things just because we have too much of them.  On farms abundance can lead to even more waste than blemishes.  Even with the most careful planning, you just can't sell everything you grow. 
  Another outlet, for both seconds and simple surplus, is our neighbors without whom we wouldn't hardly be able to farm.  A bag of cucumbers at peak season seems a poor offering to say thank you for countless favors, but that's the way of neighborliness. 
  But sometimes, things aren't second rate; they are third or fourth rate, i.e. animal quality.  This is where the beauty of diversity on the farm comes into play.  The cobs of poor quality field corn get fed to the chickens for them to turn into eggs -- if there are a bunch of bad kernels on a cob we're not going to peck out the good ones one by one, but the chickens don't mind in the least -- the pumpkins with bad spots get fed to the hog to be turned into bacon (and also provide balance to acorns, which could otherwise be constipating), and the sweet potatoes that are too small get fed to the goats for them to turn into milk.
  But more than any of these other uses, imperfect produce becomes what we call "farmer grade," meaning it goes to our kitchen for our use and especially for us to preserve for later.  We ambitiously eat in season: meal times right now feature some kind of squash and some variation of cucumber salad on the side, with other fresh-from-the-garden vegetables as well.  And once on the table, no one notices/remembers that we're eating less than the best quality.  Even our four year old, looking for a snack, knows to ask for an "ugly" cucumber.  And then when we've eaten our share and know there's more to come from the garden, we heat up the kitchen and get things preserved!  These days, the odd yellow squash have been canned for later squash casseroles, the pointy-end cucumbers are in a crock fermenting, the slug punctured cabbage has been carved and is turning into sauerkraut, and the tiny beets were perfect for pickled beets.  If it weren't for odd things such as these, we might be tempted to sell everything we grow.  And that is the opposite of what we're trying to do.  First and foremost, we farm to feed ourselves, both in season and out of season.  We feast on what would otherwise be waste.