( Photo courtesy Ron Clark )

Let’s take a moment to take a look at the current food waste movement from the grower perspective. Specifically, how can fresh market growers of fruit and vegetables improve revenue and add to their bottom line by selling more of their crop currently lost due for any reason except for condition? This includes, but is not limited to, ever-increasing tight quality specs, oversupply, rejections, etc. 

In my mind the new “ugly produce” companies have done an excellent job of raising visibility of this issue with consumers through some brilliant marketing, particularly to millennials and e-commerce customers. 

Misfits, Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce are rapidly expanding to cover significant numbers of major population centers nationally. Full Harvest is also growing rapidly in the B2B arena, selling to processors and juicers. 

By far the biggest player lowering food waste at farm level is the Feeding America food bank network, with an annual total of over 1.5 billion pounds rescued. However, the truth is that the additional purchases by ugly produce companies — at the most half a billion pounds per year — is only a drop in the bucket in capturing the 20 billion pounds of produce lost every year.

I have had extensive conversations with a number of growers ranging from row crops to field crops and tree fruit. It comes as no surprise that there is a wide range of opinion of why this is such a big issue and what are the solutions to move more perfectly edible product. 

The truth is that the additional purchases by ugly produce companies — at the most half a billion pounds per year — is only a drop in the bucket in capturing the 20 billion pounds of produce lost every year.

The single largest reason is, of course, the proclivity of the American consumer to buy the prettiest produce available. Big retail satisfies that demand with increasingly tighter quality grade specs that go far beyond U.S. Department of Agriculture specs. They have also increased the volume of unsold output by moving away from their personal relationships with growers. Buyers are no longer physically present in the fields, which causes a great disconnect. Quality control receivers are now the gateway to retail shelves and in general could not care less about growers.

The good actors in retail still actively run promotions to sell more product during periods of oversupply. Sadly, after major consolidations over the past 20 years, many retailers march to the demands of Wall Street’s insatiable appetite for higher quarterly profits. Selling 10 cases at a high margin produces higher profits than moving 100 cases on promotion with thin margins. 

The result is more product disked in the field or diverted to animal feed from packing sheds. Growers have not helped their situation by overplanting or by a habit of participating in circular firing squads that lower their prices in a race to the bottom.

These trends are not sustainable for growers to stay in business. More extreme weather, higher labor costs and retail consolidation will only increase this pressure in the next 5 to 10 years. What are the solutions we can begin today to change course? That discussion will be continued in columns to follow. I would love to hear what growers think are the best ideas.   

Ron Clark, co-founder of Imperfect Produce, worked to connect California food banks with large grower-shippers for 14 years. 

Related content:
Thoughts from Ron Clark on making progress on food waste
Northeastern News: Imperfect Produce CEO takes Manhattan
‘Ugly’ produce delivery service Hungry Harvest continues to grow

 
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