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Turning Loss into a Gain

Turning Loss into a Gain

By Tina Vossugh

Too small, misshapen, overripe. Tons of edible produce are wasted each year because they don’t look the part. Students from the Food and Agribusiness Institute want to change that. 

It’s 4:30 a.m. on a hot summer morning in July. While most people are still sleeping, Katie O’Neill ’18 is already awake, getting dressed, putting on sunscreen, and heading out of her home in Santa Clara to join her workmates, five other SCU students who are part of Santa Clara University’s Food and Agribusiness Institute.

The six-student research team is spending the entire summer out in the fields of some of California’s biggest farms, measuring the amount of food left behind, not headed to market. They’re researching the extent of food losses and waste in northern California. Their goal is to identify the potential of salvaging wasted fresh vegetable and fruit produce and diverting it to local food banks that need it.

A piece of broccoli is deemed too big and will be destroyed.
If produce doesn’t have the right look or feel—even if it’s too big—it won’t make it to market.

Market standards for fresh produce in the United States are stringent. Too large, too small, oddly-shaped, or even too ripe. If crops don’t conform to what consumers deem “right,” they get left in the field to rot, get tilled back into the soil, or diverted as low-value animal feed. The farms will only deliver what markets expect.

The team’s destination this morning is a melon field at least two hours away—112 miles south to Firebaugh, California, an agricultural town with farms as far as the eye can see.

Thomas Vickers ’19, Travis Osland ’18, Jean Baptiste Tooley ’18, Nichlas Matera ’18, and Matthew Ryan ’18 wait for O’Neill outside of the Starbucks across from campus. They sip hot cups of coffee, anxious to hit the road, checking their watches.

In the Fields 

Getting on site early is important to beat the heat. The fields offer no shade and unless they’re working by the coast, it gets unbearable by 11 a.m

A white Chevy Silverado meets the team at a landmark not far from the farm. Today, it’s a barn but yesterday it was a Shell gas station just off the main road. Last week, they were picked up at a pack-house and a McDonald’s in town. Meeting at landmarks is necessary since there are only farms for miles on end and identifying the right one can be difficult. From there he truck guides the rest of the way.

“Nearly all company’s managers drive white trucks so from the street it’s impossible to tell which company owns what field,” says Vickers. The truck leads the team down a small and winding country road, no speed limit signs in sight. Suddenly they stop off the road, no more than 40 feet away from a five-acre field.

“The fields are, oftentimes set close to the highway to allow for easier transport of goods,” adds Vickers.

Mexican pop music is blasting in the background as the crews yell back-and-forth and joke with each other, making the mundane task of harvesting more like a social gathering. The atmosphere feels warm and welcoming. The crew has been working since 4 a.m.

O’Neill takes the lead this morning. She speaks fluent Spanish and can communicate clearly with the field manager. She asks about the crops and the manager explains their harvesting process, showing the team any diseases that affect certain crops and the market standard sizing they follow.

“Each field has its own distinctive aroma, and broccoli and cauliflower have the grossest smell,” Vickers says. Today’s field is full of melons and cantaloupe and, while it’s not yet hot, there’s a unique special rotting odor that fills the air courtesy of the previously cut and harvested fruit.

“We ask the foreman or whoever we’re in contact with at the farm, what edible product is left behind,” says O’Neil. “But they often equate edible with market level, which is not necessarily true. But in their minds and in their businesses that’s what they think is what’s edible, is market standard. I think that’s hard for them to imagine that there’s anything left behind.”

On-farm losses—crops left behind and not harvested—have largely been ignored in most studies of food waste. SCU’s research team is the first to look into the issue. They’re collecting data on farm-level losses for individual vegetable and fruit species like lettuce, berries, tomatoes, apples, and sweet corn.

The sample plot size used for data collection varies according to the crop and the amount of edible produce that appears to be left in the field. When there looks to be an abundance of the particular crop left in the field, the sample plot size may be reduced from 100 feet long to 50 feet long and some occasions to 25 feet.

The students measure 30 feet into the field to account for “edge effects”—atypical yields near the edge of fields—then take 10 rows by 25 feet, marking them with flags.

“We take pictures to document our process, to document different reasons for produce being left behind, and to visually display how much food gets left behind,” says Ryan.

As the plot is measured, the team sets up a weigh station using collapsible tables they bring to each site. There, they’ll weigh the leftover edible produce using handheld scales. Some crops take longer to harvest and weigh than others, which is why the length of rows are different depending on which crop they are surveying.

They harvest one row at a time, collecting the produce in bins, sorting them into categories—too small, misshapen, or overripe. The last step is weighing the separate categories for that row and recording the data on a sheet. Afterwards, they gather as many melons as they can fit in their cars to take back to donate to the Second Harvest Food Bank. The rest is left in the field.

From the Start 

In 2015 FAI completed a multi-year project working with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. The Bank of America Foundation, at that time, was partly funding the research and liked what FAI had done. So much so that they offered more funding, asking the team what they’d want to tackle next.

Greg Baker, executive director of the Food and Agribusiness Institute, is the principal investigator of the project. He and an FAI team led by former Leavey School of Business Professor of Practice, Mike Harwood, consulted with the food bank to develop a new project to serve their community.The food bank told the team they wanted to have at least half of the food they deliver be healthy, fresh produce.

Students in FAI stand in a field of produce.
FAI needs to prove saving this produce and transporting it to food banks is financially worthwhile for farmers.

Food banks can’t get enough in produce donations to satisfy demand so they need more fresh produce. FAI wanted to solve this problem—to find out how much food is being left behind in the field, where it ends up, and how to save it and help it get to where it’s needed most.

After some calculations the team found that California food banks were only receiving 0.3 percent of the volume of produce grown in the state. They realized that the amount of produce left in the fields was substantial and so they initiated the project that they’ve dubbed “No Produce Left Behind.”

Farms typically only harvest as much as they have a contract to sell—nothing more. What’s not harvested just gets plowed in because no one is paying them to harvest it.

“We’ve been in fields surveying literally tons of left-behind produce with a tractor sitting at the end of the field waiting for us to finish so that they can plow the remaining produce under,” Baker says.

Farmers leave the crops behind in the field for economic reasons.

“Growers have a lot invested in a field of fresh produce,” says Baker. “They don’t want to abandon a perfectly good field. However, when prices are too low, the price doesn’t cover the cost to harvest and pack the product. It makes no economic sense to harvest a field.”

The system right now doesn’t pay for what’s left to go to the food banks. Growers would need to cover their costs in order to harvest and pack food destined for food banks. Because so much is left in the fields growers don’t even know what might be available.

That’s why FAI is taking the first step to show that there is a large amount left, so the system might change such that the farmers get paid, the food banks get the produce they want, and those who need the food get it.

The last step? Figuring out which groups, governmental and nonprofit, would be willing to support a system to support food banks so that they could procure the unharvested produce.

The food bank has a fleet of trucks that can pick the produce up from a field or packing shed and take it straight to San Jose to the local food assistance distribution sites, dropping it off using a system they call “the truck is our warehouse.” The food bank can distribute produce that is ripe within a few days as compared to the supermarket system takes several weeks.

The quick response and efficient systems that food banks have makes them ideal recipients for fruits and vegetables deemed too ripe for markets and grocery stores. Ideally, the growers would eventually have bins for produce destined for the market and other bins for produce that could go directly to food banks.

“Businesses nowadays want to meet the triple bottom line by addressing people’s needs, making a profit, and helping the planet,” Baker says. “This project is a very good example of that. We talk about the perfect storm, when everything goes wrong. Well this has the potential for everything to go right.”

One measure of the project’s success is that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has granted FAI $60,000 from funding they received from the Walmart Foundation to help continue FAI’s work. WWF is interested in making better use of the land already in production in order to retain more land for wildlife.

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