By Sabrina Sucato
Living in upstate New York means that you are never more than a stone’s throw away from a farm. It is a lifestyle that comes with a lot of perks: you can speak with your farmer, shop in-season produce, and pick your own fruits and veggies as often as your heart desires (and the seasons allow). For me, a visit to any of my local farms is always a treat. Whether I drop by for a pint of blueberries in the height of summer or pick my own apples come fall, I know that fresh crops are always within my reach.
As a consumer, getting to handpick my weekly eats is fine and dandy. But as a food writer and eco-conscious thinker, I cannot help but wonder what happens to the goods that aren’t the cream of the crop. Where do the battered berries, wilted lettuce, and fallen apples go at the end of the day? After all, not every scrap of produce gets sold or consumed. It turns out that there are a number of different paths these orphaned farm goods can take.
After hoards of visitors stomp the yard during u-pick season, orchards often resemble graveyards strewn with bruised and holey apples. But as long as they haven’t hit the ground, abandoned apples still have a chance.
At Philip Orchards in Claverack, NY, these lonely tree-clingers are transformed into apple cider and hard cider. John Philip, the orchard’s owner, said that cidery representatives from around the Hudson Valley drive to farms and orchards like his to pluck the leftover apples, which account for an estimated five to ten percent of the total harvest, at a discounted rate. The value-priced produce helps the farm clear out their crops, but it also benefits the cider-making process beyond the cost savings element: ripe and even overripe apples have a higher sugar content that is crucial for flavorful brews.
Philip Orchards also offers charitable groups a chance to collect any leftover produce, like fruits and vegetables that didn’t sell at market stands. The discounted rate makes it easier to raise funds for a cause or to distribute foods to those in need. “We do have church groups that come and pick what’s left on the trees at budget rates,” said Philip, noting that charitable organizations journey from all over New York state to collect Philip Orchards’ leftover bounty.
Jane and Rick Lawrence, owners at Lawrence Farms Orchard in Newburgh, bring their leftover produce remains to local food banks. These farm remains make up approximately ten to twenty percent of overall farm growth, according the Lawrences. In addition to food banks, they also donate to local Boy Scout troupes, who then distribute the food to soup kitchens or sell it to raise money for charity.
Unfortunately, sometimes even the best attempts to make the best use of the farm’s bounty don’t get very far: “Soup kitchens or food pantries don’t always have proper storage space,” said Jane. “We may bring bushels of peppers or apples, but they don’t have storage space.” This is a systematic problem that would require financial and organizational solutions to overcome, which many food banks and charities are not equipped to tackle. If the fresh food that gets delivered goes bad before it can even be eaten, then the effort on both ends is wasted.
Jane and Rick also use their family network to their advantage, leaning on children, siblings, and cousins for help running the business as much as keeping waste at a minimum. Instead of shopping for fruits and veggies at the supermarket, the Lawrences keep things hyperlocal by sourcing food for the family straight from farm production. “We use it for ourselves,” said Jane Lawrence. “If the produce is on the ground, we can’t sell or donate it, but some of that we can use for our farm family.”
Throwing out food on the farm is not just wasteful, it also disregards the hard work and countless hours that farmers spend growing healthy, plentiful crops in the first place.
“We can’t tolerate any waste at all,” said Christine Covino, farm manager at Harvest Moon in North Salem. She and her staff operate a multi-tiered screening process to ensure that all their produce goes to a good home. The top crop heads straight to stores, local CSA programs, or the Harvest Moon Farm kitchen and into the hands (and bellies) of happy customers. The “seconds,” as Covino calls them, are sold in bulk at discounted prices to interested consumers, usually local food businesses. Any leftovers beyond those stages go to local charitable organizations, become feed for the farm’s animals, or are added to compost for eco-friendly biodegrading.
Covino estimates that around ten to fifteen percent of total farm production is left over after the first two stages of sales and distribution. “We are happy knowing that what we can’t sell ends up in a good useful place after going through the whole process,” she said.
Fishkill Farms grows just about every type of crop imaginable for its upstate New York climate. Through their standing relationship with The Lunch Box, a community food program in Peekskill, NY, anywhere from ten to twenty shipping boxes full of produce make their way to those in need every week. Depending on the season, donations could include anything from greens like lettuce, kale, swiss chard, and herbs to bell peppers, eggplants, and squash.
“The Lunch Box does a mini mobile market with our produce, along with other donations,” explained Anna Zabirova, harvest manager for Fishkill Farms. “They provide food to those who don’t have access to healthy, organic produce. It’s a very strange time that we’re living in, where perfectly good food goes to waste.”
On the farm, there is no such thing as the end of the line. It’s all part of the farm life cycle after all. As a waste-conscious consumer myself, I have to agree with Zabirova. Excess and abundance are promoted as the norm in the food world, while poverty and global hunger grow in tandem with the latest food trends. Overproduction may be inevitable, but food waste is not. Channeling surplus produce in a meaningful way is key to encouraging a thriving local community, not to mention a more conscious culinary one.
Photos: Chia Messina