There’s an old Vermont joke: You can spot an out-of-towner when you see him in the produce aisle of a supermarket buying zucchini.
The vegetables are so prevalent in the summer that folks resort to dumping them off on friends to make sure they don’t go to waste.
It’s not just zucchini that goes to waste in this state.
A new study suggests 14.3 million pounds of vegetables and berries are lost every year in Vermont. What would that volume look like, if it were all to be delivered to market at once?
“Think of a 1-ton pickup truck,” said Theresa Snow, founder of Salvation Farms in Morristown. “Now picture 7,000 of those in a row. That’s a line 26 miles long. And that doesn’t even count apples, or plums, or pears, anything growing on trees.”
Salvation Farms, a nonprofit organization, strives to make sure all that surplus food ends up in Vermonters’ bellies, and it has been helping farmers “glean” their crops for about a decade, saving more and more food every year from wasting on the vine or just being tossed.
For its “Vermont Food Loss on Farms” study, Salvation Farms hired Isgood Community Research LLC to send surveys to farmers across the state this winter, when they had a little more time to actually fill these things out. Fifty-eight farms in 13 of Vermont’s 14 counties completed the survey. It was sent to apple farmers and other fruit tree farms, but not enough of them responded for valid results.
The estimate of 14.3 million pounds of food waste is more than seven times what Snow had guessed the answer would be.
Abbey Willard, food systems section chief with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said the report could help change the way the agency helps farmers. Newer farmers especially — “educated, excitable entrepreneurs” — might be able to find new ways to take care of their excess produce, Willard said.
Salvation Farms “has done a very laudable job of making sure people have access to healthy foods, and making sure farmers have access to various markets,” she said.
Lost in the field
According to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture — and using crop yield formulas from a Rutgers University study of the same year — Vermont farmers harvest 3,897 acres of vegetables each year, about 84.9 million pounds. They harvest 601 acres of berries a year — 3.9 million pounds.
But plenty never gets harvested. Farmers said they pick, on average, 85 percent of the vegetables and berries they grow.
While some of the unpicked produce is inedible because of animals, insects, disease or weather, plenty of it is still good — 34 percent of vegetables and 25 percent of berries.
Some of that produce may be blemished, or farmers might think they can’t fetch anything for it at the market. Some farmers just don’t have enough labor, storage space or time to harvest 100 percent of their good crops.
According to the report, “While some of the edible produce that is left unpicked by farmers is captured by gleaners, a large percentage is turned under in the field or fed to pasturing animals. It is this food — that which never makes it onto people’s plates — that we consider food lost in the field.”
Plenty of food that has been picked or plucked also goes to waste, whether it’s lettuce wilting at the farmers market, or potatoes growing eyes while in storage. But still, only one-third of unsold vegetables are donated to community organizations such as food banks.
Willard said places like prisons are willing to pay a less-than-premium price for blemished produce, especially if they’re going to turn it into something like soup or pies.
“We’re really trying to market the blemished products to particular markets,” she said.
The Food Loss report shows just how little Vermonters knew about how much produce is wasted every year.
It also acknowledges there are possible flaws in the data, since only 53 vegetable farms and 27 berry farms could lead to a large margin of error. It could be as little as 7.4 million pounds of vegetables wasted each year, or maybe as much as 21.9 million.
What if farmers overestimated or underestimated how much produce they leave unharvested? What if the Rutgers data on projected yields is off? What if a lot of farmers feed their families and friends with surplus, or make a whole lot of strawberry jam?
Snow said the bottom line is that there’s a lot more waste than originally estimated. The report is a good start for Salvation Farms, which relies largely on grants to maintain its operations.
“How do our colleagues help Vermont farmers move the food into the food system?” she said. “There is a lot more work to be done, which means a lot more infrastructure and a lot more investment.”
One such project is near its launch date. In September, Salvation Farms plans to open a “commodities hub” in Winooski, where workers will clean, pack and ship thousands of pounds of surplus every harvest. Inmates at the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor had been doing the work, but that location is no longer feasible for long-term plans.
Salvation Farms touts making 825,000 servings to “those most in need of nourishment” over the years, through food shelves, hospitals, schools and other institutions.
The Winooski place won’t use inmate labor, but it could put recently released prisoners to work, or give veterans coming back from active duty another way to stay busy and helpful while transitioning back to civilian life.
“Anyone looking to make change in their own life, and change the lives of other people, and the state,” Snow said.