Vermont farms produce 14 million pounds of unused food every year, according to a recent report by a Morrisville-based nonprofit called Salvation Farms.
The report also found that most of that food gets harvested and discarded; only about 16 percent remains on farms to be tilled under the earth or fed to livestock.
Several groups of Vermont volunteers already handpick around 600,000 pounds of produce annually from selected farmers’ fields after harvest and recover what’s edible from the remnants, most of which suffer from blemishes and other aesthetic deficiencies that don’t affect the food’s nutritional value.
Salvation Farms Executive Director Theresa Snow said the report gives her confidence that a market might exist for this produce, and she’s trying to scale her organization’s efforts up to a point where Vermont institutions make use of it. Snow said the study was undertaken to find out whether the amount of Vermont agricultural produce that goes to waste is enough to affect the state’s food supply.
Snow said it’s important to recognize that it’s not Vermont’s farmers who are causing the food to go to waste, but rather market forces beyond their control that make imperfect foods too costly to use.
Snow’s organization exists to increase the resilience of Vermont’s food system through better management of agricultural surpluses like those the report describes.
The practice of salvaging leftovers after a harvest is known as gleaning, and it’s not a new idea, said Rachel Carter, communications director at the Vermont Farm to Plate Network.
People have gleaned farmers’ fields for thousands of years, Carter said.
“It’s actually a really old practice that Salvation Farms has been spearheading to bring back to Vermont,” she said.
The food is entirely safe, but unmarketable, Carter said.
Carter’s organization is helping Snow figure out a way to expand gleaning in Vermont from a volunteer effort to a sustainable business, she said. Of the more than 14 million pounds of Vermont produce that goes unused each year, she said, 68 percent has been harvested already.
“As discouraging as this loss may be, the 68 percent of harvested food that does not get sold or donated represents a potential untapped market opportunity,” Carter said in an email. “The Farm to Plate Network … will examine the areas of market opportunity for surplus and seconds, namely institutions and processors, and begin to problem solve around the key factors limiting the amount of surplus and seconds making it from farm to plate: price, volume, labor, and logistics.”
There’s no downside for farmers, said Evan Harlow, a manager at Westminster’s Harlow Farm. Volunteers from the Vermont Foodbank glean from Harlow Farm fields after harvest, Harlow said, and they’ve done so since he found out about the service five years ago.
“We just show them what field to go to,” Harlow said. Volunteers bring knives, bags and trucks to get the produce and haul it away.
“There’s a little bit less organic material we’re tilling back into the soil, but it’s negligible,” Harlow said. “I don’t really think there’s any downside to it.”
Industrial food production is extremely profitable and generally efficient, Snow said, but it’s also very wasteful, and gleaning recovers only a portion of what goes unused.
Across the country, she said, 60 billion tons of food gets wasted every year, with only 16 percent of that number representing produce and other agricultural products.
The 14 million pounds of unused Vermont produce every year, Snow said, “seems like a lot, but I think it seems like a lot because we don’t think about our food system.
“The amount the average person participates in wasting foods is more significant than what’s left on farms,” she said. “We’re wasting food all the way along the food supply chain.”
Although her efforts will capture only a small part of that food, it’s still important to the vulnerable and disadvantaged people who currently benefit from much of Vermont’s gleaned produce. If she succeeds, the 14 million pounds of produce Vermont farmers don’t use each year could also benefit the state, Snow said.
“Vermont institutions spend $11 million each year sourcing fresh food from outside Vermont,” Snow said. “Meanwhile, 14 million pounds of Vermont fresh foods … is sitting unused on farms.”
Snow said she hopes to sell what farmers reject to institutions like nursing homes, veterans’ homes, schools and prisons. She said that along the way it’s important not to compete with farmers’ development of markets, since that could hurt the viability of the entire venture.
Salvation Farms’ goal of increasing the resilience of Vermont’s food system comes into play here, she said. Even though gleaning doesn’t typically profit farmers, the money it saves would otherwise go to exploitative industrial farms around the globe, she said, “and we don’t invest it in the local economy or local communities.”
“That’s why an independent, strong food system ultimately builds stronger communities,” she said.