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How To Reduce Food Waste on the Farm

Updated: Apr 9

Reducing Food Waste on The Farm

Food waste is a problem that we all face, even if you don't have a farm. Inevitably, food will spoil. As farmers, we have the complex job of balancing growing the right amount of food so that our customers will be satisfied and yet, not leaving anything on the table to waste.

Food waste is also one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet. According to the U.N. Environment Programme, 1.3 billion tons, or one-third of all the food produced in the world is lost or wasted every year. Unfortunately, the current food manufacturing process is not helping these numbers. Farmers know there are a significant amount of resources put into producing food; from water, land use, time, and energy harvesting, packaging, selling, and moving the food. There are many situations in farming where food is left unharvested or becomes unsellable. This is part of the risk of producing food, but we can be smarter. What we're suggesting here are some ways to reduce the amount of loss before we have to add to the waste pile at all.

One of the biggest ways that we might reduce greenhouse gases is by reducing food waste through the food production cycle. In this article, we will outline several ways to eliminate food waste through the farming process while creatively turning that into a profit.

Top Ways to Reduce Food Waste on Your Farm - Before The Growing Season

The way you plan your growing season can significantly reduce food waste on your farm. This means planning what to grow, when to grow it, for how long, when to harvest, and the best ways to store and sell it. Here are some steps before you even plant to reduce food waste during the growing season.

  • Do Your Research: Before you purchase seed you need to understand what your customers want to buy, roughly how much they will pay for the item, and if that item grows well in your area. By doing this research before you start growing, will reduce the amount of waste you might end up with because of overages and un-marketability.

  • Estimate What You Need to Grow: This is another step in the market research, finding out how much you might need to grow. One of the top areas of food waste is overproduction. No one wants to grow food that just sits wasted in the field, but it happens due to overproduction of an item and not enough places to sell it. To combat this, do your research, and find places where you know you will be able to sell your item. You can sell wholesale as well as retail, don't limit yourself. Doing your research and understanding your market will go a long way to growing what you need. This doesn't mean that you can't try new things and add to your farm line-up but if your goal is to reduce waste, that's not the place to start.

  • Use Technology: The use of digital technology in farming has skyrocketed over the past decade. You can smartly use farm technology to help you produce and distribute your food more efficiently. This goes from seed to sale; using tools to estimate how much you will need to grow, to selling online and expanding your customer base. Technology has more and more applications in farming.

  • Secure Buyers Ahead of Time: Being able to plan for your customer's needs ahead of the season gives you a huge advantage in reducing food waste as well as knowing how much you will make in a season. You can do this by using things like community-supported agriculture (CSA) and speaking with local chefs and other businesses to set up agreements to purchase the items before you even grow them.

Top Ways to Reduce Food Waste at Planting

Planning how you grow your produce can help you more effectively plan your season and can significantly reduce food waste on your farm. This also just generally makes life easier during the growing season. Of course, there will always be things that you won't expect but here are some steps you can take to better plan your growing season:

  • Crop Selection: It starts with your crop selection. Choose crops that have a longer shelf life, are more stable, can be harvested easily, or can be easily preserved.

  • Seed Selection: Choose high-quality seeds from reputable suppliers. Opt for varieties that are well-suited to your local climate, soil conditions are more disease-resistant. This improves germination and growth rates, and overall crop health.

  • Soil Testing: Conduct regular soil tests to assess nutrient levels and pH balance. Amend your soil as needed with organic matter, compost, or appropriate fertilizers to optimize nutrient availability for optimal plant growth.

  • Plant at the Right Time: Plant seeds when soil moisture and temperature conditions are optimal for germination, and early growth in your zone. It's important to avoid planting during periods of excessive weather like wind, rain, or drought, as this can lead to poor seedling establishment and higher loss rates.

  • Promote Crop Health in the Field: Use strategies to manage and promote healthy plants such as soil solarization to manage weeds, sanitation of winter debris, pruning staking and continued care as the plant matures, and weeding strategies. Stressed plants are more prone to diseases and pests so you can reduce that by reducing those stressors.

  • Extend the Growing Season: Plant earlier and finish the season later by using tunnels, row covers, hot caps, soil mulches, and greenhouses. These strategies can also help reduce pests.

  • Use Cover Crops and Green Manures: Plant cover crops or green manure between crop rotations to improve soil health, suppress weeds, and reduce erosion. This can also help reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, minimizing environmental impact and monetary overhead.

  • Use Crop Rotation and Companion Planting: Implement a crop rotation plan to maintain soil fertility, prevent the buildup of soil diseases, and disrupt pest lifestyles.

  • Start Succession Planting: Instead of planting all your crops at once, stagger your plantings to ensure a continuous harvest throughout the season. This prevents too much produce at any one time. This also makes sure that you have more of that item growing for return customers.

  • Practice Efficient Irrigation Management: Implement efficient irrigation systems and water management practices. By adding efficient irrigation sources that water only where needed you can ensure optimal crop health and minimize water waste.

  • Employ Pest Management: Employ integrated pest management (IPM) practices to control pests and diseases using environmentally friendly methods such as beneficial predators, biological control, crop rotation, and the use of pest-resistant varieties. This can reduce the need for chemical pesticides as well as crop loss to pests.

Top Ways to Reduce Food Waste at Harvest

Another step to reducing food waste is planning your harvest, storage, sale, and transportation of your produce. Much of what is spoiled can be reduced with planning and care during harvest and post-harvest.

  • Harvest Planning: Plan your harvest schedule carefully to avoid leaving crops in the field for too long, where they may become overripe or susceptible to spoilage. Create a growing season overview so you can see growing times and estimates of ripeness and harvest dates. Harvest crops at the optimal stage of maturity to ensure maximum quality and shelf life.

  • Harvest With Care: Handle harvested crops with care to minimize bruising, crushing, and other physical damage. Using appropriate tools and equipment, such as harvest bins with cushioning materials, and picking baskets that won't squeeze or pinch produce will reduce injury during picking and transport.

  • Use Best Practices at Harvest: Maintain high levels of cleanliness and hygiene during harvesting operations to prevent contamination and reduce the risk of microbial spoilage. You should be thinking about containers, surfaces, water, and anything touching the produce. After each step in the process, the next handling area should be even cleaner. Work to establish a culture of food safety on your farm.

  • Reduce handling and transport to the packhouse as much as possible as this is where a lot of damage occurs. You might consider investing in carts for harvesting and field packing depending on the produce you're harvesting. They can provide ease in packing, transport, and shade for farm workers and produce.

  • Sorting: Sort harvested crops based on quality criteria such as size, color, ripeness, and appearance. Place damaged, diseased, or defective produce aside to prevent spoilage from spreading to healthy crops during storage and transport. You can find another use for this produce later (see other steps).

  • Packaging and Post Harvest: Use appropriate packaging materials and techniques to protect harvested crops from physical damage, moisture loss, and exposure to light and air. Choose packing materials that are breathable and provide good ventilation to prevent condensation and mold. Consider adding a post-harvest treatment such as washing, sanitizing, or waxing to remove surface contaminants and pathogens that can contribute to spoilage. If you have the means to get a little more complex, you can utilize treatments such as modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) or controlled atmosphere storage (CAS) which can help extend the shelf life of perishable crops. Both these storage methods reduce respiration rates and inhibit microbial growth.

  • Inventory and Storage Planning: Proper management of storage facilities and techniques can extend the shelf life of harvested produce. Creating a cool storage environment and always practicing safe food handling practices are other key ways to store food longer, and reduce food waste while practicing good agricultural practices.

  • Traceability: Implement a traceability system to track the movement, care, and storage of harvested crops from the field to the consumer. Traceability helps keep food safe for consumers and gives them visibility into how the food was grown, stored, etc.

Top Ways to Reduce Food Waste after Harvest

Another step to reducing food waste is finding creative ways to sell as much as you can and then upcycle the rest. Here are some ways to make the sale of your harvest easier to say yes to and other ways to use your produce before it spoils.

  • Offer Delivery: People love a delivery service. It offers convenience to your customers and regular cash to your business. You won't have items sitting on a shelf, they will be going out the door fresh to your customer's doorstep. It's always an option to charge extra or make it an add-on to your service.

  • Upcycle Your Harvest: If you can't sell them, preserve them. It makes sense to take fruit and vegetables that you have and make something with the excess. Create your own unique jam, jelly, salsa, pickles, hot sauce and more. You just need a little bit of elbow grease and time. Save the season and sell the products through the winter.

  • Collaborate with Local Food Banks: Establish partnerships with local food banks, restaurants, and other outlets to distribute surplus produce that cannot be sold commercially. 1 in 5 People in the U.S. is food insecure, yet more than 30% of food grown is wasted and never consumed. Offering this food to food banks can help reduce waste while also benefiting the community. Bonus- this donation is tax deductible.

  • Give Discounts for Imperfect Food: Offer a discount to your customers for items that are misshapen or are at the end of their shelf life. Customers will benefit from a bit of a discount and you won't have to throw out or compost that item. You might also think of keeping a list of customers who bought this type of produce before and then contacting them when you have excess to sell.

  • Host a farm-to-table dinner: Have a farm dinner directly after your day at the market. Whatever doesn't sell, gets cooked for dinner. Sell tickets and make it a community event. Hire a local chef and collaborate. You might find that the local chef might want to purchase your produce regularly for their restaurant. As a bonus for your guests, you might also have baskets of produce ready to purchase on their way home.

  • Feed Animals Excess Food: Use excess produce to feed your animals. If you don't raise animals yourself, you can work with another local farm to purchase your item. Do some networking in your farm community to see who might be interested.

  • Compost: Last, but certainly not least, compost. Compost is an excellent source of additional organic matter and nutrients to incorporate into your soil. The food you can't use today can be composted to improve the soil for tomorrow.

Food waste is a very large contributor to methane gas emissions in our environment today. Much of this could be reduced by finding alternative channels for those items and being smarter in our farming processes. By implementing these strategies you can optimize your growing season to reduce food waste and improve the sustainability of your farm operations. It's truly a win-win.

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