BioCycle September 2005, Vol. 46, No. 9, p. 44
Inefficiencies in farming and fresh food processing keep more than 12 percent of America’s agricultural bounty from reaching our tables.
Timothy W. Jones
LOOKING across the nation’s expansive fields of mechanized modern farms, it is difficult to imagine a more efficient food production system. But inefficiencies in farming and fresh food processing keep more than 12 percent of America’s agricultural bounty from reaching America’s tables. The cost to the fresh fruit and vegetable farming and processing sector could be as much as $20 billion annually.
The first article in this series, “The Corner On Food Loss” (July 2005), introduced an ongoing study at the University of Arizona, Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, on the American food system with a focus on food losses – a gargantuan issue costing the American economy at least $100 billion annually.
This second article focuses in on the area of farming food loss. Our study covered the Salinas Valley in California, the nation’s primary center for growing and processing fresh vegetables; Florida’s orange-growing region; and apple country in Washington and Oregon. Each region experienced losses for different reasons. This article focuses on Salinas Valley and Florida’s orange growers.
Given the amount of crop loss, the opportunity is ripe for composting and organics to energy facilities. Value added losses are already concentrated in dumpsters. The contents, currently sent to landfills, could easily be diverted to more productive uses. Understanding why these tremendous losses are generated enables the food recovery and waste processing industries to determine how to service the agricultural industry as it currently operates.
SALINAS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
The majority of the nation’s fresh lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and carrots are grown and lost in the Salinas Valley and some locations further inland. Most losses are due either to “walk-by’s,” when farmers decide not to harvest a crop, or the production of “higher value” products, like salad mixes or broccoli crowns.
A farmer’s decision to walk-by a ready crop is based on a host of factors, mostly focusing on profit. And that depends on the definition of what is profitable. Due to inconsistencies in predicting market prices, farmers often turn under marginally profitable crops rather than “take the risk” of a loss. In essence, they don’t want to put out the money for picking, packaging, storage and transportation believing that they may not make money on the harvest. The problem is that the farmers do not have good models on which to make these decisions. In fact, there has never been a study on whether farmers are correct in their decisions. (It is generally assumed that they are correct.) The biggest problem in the fresh vegetable farming industry is the fact that most of the walk-bys would be profitable, just not profitable enough for a gambling culture mentality.
What these farm prognosticators do not see are the fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, gasoline, soil erosion, human labor and other factors that should be included in their calculations. Rather than go to waste, walk-bys could be harvested to provide desperately needed food for the nation’s food banks. That generally doesn’t happen because food banks do not have the “pennies on the dollar” to recover crops that otherwise go to waste (see sidebar on recovery for food banks).
The focus on ever-higher profits comes out of the fresh vegetable industry’s gambling-style culture. By attempting to get the most money out of their crops, they keep playing in order to “hit” those years when prices soar and they bring in a “full house.” A variety of factors can cause prices to soar, including weather (flooding, drought, frost), imports (but usually only a short-term impact since imports come in large batches rather than coming in consistently), and the futures market, where farmers often are players. But the biggest impact on prices is demand, and growers can greatly reduce demand by charging higher prices. If a crop starts out too costly, consumers may not buy that crop for the whole season, even if prices decline.
Providing a more consistent supply and price would lead to increased but steady consumer demand with equal profits. The apple industry would be an appropriate template. It has spent the last 60 years working on preserving apples so that they could provide a supply year round. Once they had that consistent supply, they started to reduce prices to a level that could be consistent all year and still provide a reasonable profit. This provides the apple industry with predictable demand so that they can plan the acreage they need under cultivation and know the amount of storage and associated facilities required. This reduces speculative risk spending. It took a cooperative culture to accomplish this, which I will talk about in the next issue.
Farms adjacent to Yuma and Phoenix, Arizona and other less concentrated Arizona locations have thrust the state into second place in the national fresh vegetable and fruit industry. Arizona now leads the nation in lettuce production. The Arizona/Mexico Nogales border crossing is heaped in food losses from lucrative fresh vegetable and fruit imports. The losses are mainly due to repacking though much of what is thrown out could be sent to food banks in the southwest United States. Growers only repack the highest quality fruits and vegetable since they are usually going to “high value” markets in the north central and northeast U.S. Much of these losses are concentrated in the repacking facilities just inside the United States. There are numerous opportunities for the productive use of these food losses.
Prepared fresh vegetables are another area we studied. They offer convenience for consumers and higher profits for producers. But mechanized and rapid-hand preparation creates more waste and makes vegetables deteriorate more quickly. A head of lettuce will last for days in the refrigerator. A bag of lettuce is already on its way to becoming compost. Some producers have moved value added facilities closer to urban retail centers throughout this United States. Deterioration losses have declined but still are higher than retail head lettuce.
The Florida orange industry has been besieged with cheap foreign frozen juice, catastrophic freezes and hurricanes, land-value pressures from the Florida housing boom and the dot.com crash and soft consumer demand. During my fieldwork, I watched as one of the largest and most innovative orange processors and distributors declared bankruptcy, and drank in local bars with fourth-generation employees who were laid off. (The Florida orange industry sank large chunks of their profits into the dot.com industry but the crash of those stocks left them with nearly depleted cash reserves right at the time they needed the cash to cover losses from the freezes and hurricanes.)
These tough conditions have led to losses in the industry as high as 29 percent. Nearly half of that was due to a lack of interest in even harvesting the crops though oranges are still needed. Just days after completing the orange industry fieldwork, I saw a 9-year-old girl at a food bank in Minneapolis point to a bin piled with oranges and ask her mother “What is that?” “Oranges we can’t normally afford,” the mother replied.
Understandably, the orange producers could not economically harvest the bountiful crop. As with the vegetable industry in California, there is no money to harvest the crops for food banks and little help for the growers. Oranges continue to blanket neglected orchard floors, a bonanza for those who can use them. Oranges are used for animal feed, hygienic animal fodder, essence additives, cleaners and more. With negligible commodity cost there is potential for emerging innovative industries from citrus fruit and vegetable losses.
One group that has fared the crisis is the Florida orange gift-pack sector, a testament to future successful orange marketing. Inexpensive and rapid modern delivery systems allow this sector to supply the dense eastern U.S. corridor with a wide variety of “fresh picked” oranges below retail prices. Foreign companies can’t compete with supplying these fragile varieties and timely deliveries. It takes time to build a customer base and the market is expanding.
As noted above, the Northwest apple industry provides refreshing contrasts to the California vegetable and Florida citrus industries. Next month, I will discuss this cultural and economic oddity in the American agricultural system.
Dr. Timothy Jones is at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona in Tucson.
(sidebar, page 46, September 2005)
INCREASING THE FLOW TO FOOD BANKS
Is it really too costly to harvest crops that farmers declare unprofitable to pick? From our experience with experiments covering crops in Arizona, we have found that the cost of recovering crops using volunteer and low cost or subsidized labor (prison labor, handicap training programs, etc) runs between 2 and 3 cents a pound for vegetables and far less for large fruits such as melons. This includes all costs including labor, packing and transportation to the food banks.
There are a number of individual programs in place, but no regional or national coordinated recovery effort to our knowledge. The Ag Against Hunger project in the Salinas Valley area south of San Francisco, and the Arizona Statewide Gleaning Project which uses prison labor provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections, are examples of ones operating in the agricultural regions discussed in this article. The Arizona Gleaning Project harvests about one million pounds a year from Sunfresh Farms, including broccoli, cabbage and melons, using inmate labor (women) from nearby Perryville Prison. Inmates work in the fields from November to June. In Florida, volunteers glean citrus in Pima County and Maricopa County all winter. They are coordinated by Community Food Bank and Westside Food Bank respectively.