You’ve probably heard the statistics or seen the memes. Something on the order of 40% of all food grown in the United States is wasted either before it reaches grocery shelves, or (mostly) after it is purchased. And stories early in the pandemic of farmers dumping milk or slaughtering animals that could not be processed, because the “get big and get out” global food system was an epic failure during a pandemic was enough to turn your stomach. Tight margins and a lack of the right infrastructure and storage when the school and restaurant sales suddenly dried up meant that a huge amount of food was wasted. The cracks in our national food system were exposed. Meanwhile, even before Covid-19, 1 in 7 people in this country are food insecure.

National Resources Defense Council Infographic

I abhor food waste. Maybe its because I grew up with an older father, who had lived through the “dirty 30’s” with 9 brothers and sisters, and knew the value of a full belly. Maybe its because I was a broke college student, twice. Maybe its just in my DNA to be resourceful (my extended family laughs and says there’s a gene that kicks in when we turn 30 that makes us stop at every pile of stuff on the side of the road to see if there’s anything in there we could use. I call it the “scrounge gene”).

I can GUARANTEE that the above statistic, about 30-50% of products purchased by consumers is being thrown out instead of eaten is NOT our household. I’ll design an entire meal out of 1/2 of an avocado that needs to be used up. And having dogs, chickens, sheep and a compost pile means that on the rare occasion when something is past its prime and needs to be tossed, it goes right back into the soil of this farm in one form or another. But I’m not most people.

People who loudly state, “I hate leftovers”! Seriously. What is up with that mindset?!

Food Waste pyramid, United States Dept. of Agriculture

There’s a whole outcry happening around “ugly produce” right now. That we need to get over the idea that every fruit or vegetable look perfect in the store. And I don’t disagree. But the reality is that less than 20% of our total food waste is happening at farms and packing houses. Farmers have a LOT of time and energy in a piece of produce or fruit by the time its harvested. They will find a way to sell that produce whenever possible – if not direct to consumers than to wholesale manufacturers who will turn it into juice or soup or some other value-added product where the weird shape no longer matters. Or they donate it to their local food bank.

Some spoilage is inevitable and expected. Food waste will NEVER be zero. For example, I’ve been processing pears for pear butter this last week. The crates of pears have been sitting in my walk-in cooler since the end of September (because other more important things needed attention and pears hold for a LONG time in cold storage). Pears are picked under-ripe on purpose (they are less gritty if they are picked early). So I needed to let the pears sit at room temperature for up to a week before I was able to peel and process them. I lost a few to rot. Maybe 3 or 4 total out of about 50 lbs. It happens. Sometimes there’s damage you miss or can’t see. The chickens and sheep enjoyed them.

Anjou Pears from Bill Warren Orchards in Dayton

While some loss due to spoilage is inevitable all along the food chain, closer to home = less handling = less spoilage in general, so BUY LOCAL when you can. That bag of lettuce at the grocery store has likely traveled 1,500 miles and is already at least a week old when you purchase it. But 80% + of our food waste is on the consumer/restaurant side. A bit of spoilage or an oddly shaped carrot is not the center of the problem.

I can’t even begin to address how to change the mindset on the consumer side, other than more of an emphasis on learning to cook and to preserve what we have. (Though studies have shown that guilt is NOT the right approach.) There are many many examples of that on how to do that on this blog, such as this one, so I won’t belabor the point.

Which brings us to gratitude. When I started selling produce at farmers markets, back in 2011, I was so excited to feed people fresh local produce. And what I quickly learned is 1) it’s hard to make a living selling $2 bags of spinach and 2) you often didn’t sell out of what you’ve brought to market and have to take it home again. THIS IS HEARTBREAKING, especially when you are small.

Broccoli at farmers market, 2019.

Most of what I brought home from market was either sold at the next market, eaten by us, preserved for future meals by us, donated to a food bank, or fed to our own animals. None of it ever went to waste in the sense of ending up in a landfill. But the monetary pay off for that labor was often never realized.

Over the years I’ve stopped growing produce that didn’t sell well or that I couldn’t recoup the cost on or that didn’t store for more than a few days. Eggplant and green beans are examples. Eventually, I stopped growing greens for market, because other vendors were doing that VERY well, and I wanted to dedicate that garden space to more tomatoes and peppers and alliums. I also realized that in order to really make money selling produce, I’d need to put a lot more ground under cultivation. As I wasn’t really interested in cultivating more ground, I’ve mostly pivoted to focus on value-added products. But growing produce still has a special place in my heart. So I never stopped offering fresh vegetables at farmers market, even though it wasn’t the biggest percentage of my sales.

For the last 7 or 8 years, my booth at the farmers market was right next to the one from Hayshaker Farm. Hayshaker DOES focus on making a living growing and selling produce. Their double (sometimes triple) booth at the farmers market was a site to behold, especially early in the day when it was packed to the edges with product. They also sold to local restaurants and to local independent grocery stores. And because we shared a lot of customers, and I saw what they had to offer every week, to some extent I dovetailed what I was growing to compliment but not duplicate what they were growing. Turns out, come 2020, this was a very fortuitous decision.

Hayshaker Farmers Market booth, 2019

I stopped doing farmers markets this year. The restrictions at market all added up to a “this just isn’t worth the work” for me. Honestly, I was thinking this was going to be my last year at farmers markets anyway (10 years of every Saturday for 6 months straight is a LONG time). Covid-19 just accelerated that timeline. Turns out several local farms stopped doing farmers market this year for similar reasons.

So I scrambled to get my website updated for on farm pick-up and delivery. About this same time, Hayshaker, who had lost all of their restaurant sales, was also revamping their website into an online marketplace. And they invited other local sustainable farmers who were trying to figure out how to navigate the “new normal” to list their products on the Hayshaker website for a small commission. As of this writing, they have 17 local and regional farms selling products on their online marketplace, from organic flours to cheeses to fermented pickles to mushrooms. SEVENTEEN!

I started out listing soaps and jams on Hayshaker’s site in late March. By June I was listing dried chilies, dried tomatoes and garlic scapes. I added produce as it come on, always checking in to make sure I wasn’t stepping on their toes (their need to sell what they had grown trumped my need to sell what I had grown on their site). But it turned out, most of what I grew either they didn’t have (things like lemon cucumbers) or they needed more of it (tomatoes).

Lemon Cucumbers on livestock panel trellis. I will never go back to growing them sprawlng on the ground!

You guys, I sold every single piece of produce I listed with Hayshaker this year. The only thing I took to the food bank was an overabundance of lemon cucumbers and 20 lbs of “character” carrots (I only grew carrots for myself this year, not for sale). EVERY SINGLE PIECE. This is like going to farmers market with produce and selling out every week. It was amazing.

I also sold the heck out of my jams, and have had a steady stream of weekly soap orders as well. Not the amount of soap I was selling to tourists, but honestly, I never wanted soap to be the primary focus of this farm anyway. That just HAPPENED, lol. And not doing markets, I’ve had time to expand my herb/spice offerings and add things like fresh pestos and romesco sauce and basil syrups in season.

And this fall, we partnered on chipotle peppers. Hayshaker grew them. I smoked, dried and packaged them. And we’ll be able to sell them for the next year.

So, gratitude. Gratitude for this pandemic starting in March, when we all still had time to plan. Gratitude for years of honing my produce offerings to be unique and excellent and not the exact same as what everyone else was selling. Gratitude for all of my customers who have followed me to Hayshaker’s online marketplace (you CAN still order from me directly, and not everything I have is listed with Hayshaker, but why not combine your order and also get squash and cheese and local organic flour at the same time? $20 minimum order. Pick up at drop location in town Tuesdays and Fridays).

Gratitude to Blue Mountain Station and Welcome Table Farm and Frog Hollow Farm for carrying some of my products at a less than typical wholesale price so that this small farm could reach more customers and still realize a small profit. Gratitude for my awesome farm intern Melanie for all of her help this summer. Gratitude for full local bellies and a renewed passion for buying locally by many consumers. Gratitude for small farm partnerships who recognize that a rising tide lifts all boats. We are stronger together, supporting each other, than going it alone. I am SO grateful to be living in this community.

© 2020 Miles Away Farm, where we’re miles away from done thinking up new products for the year. Look for taco seasoning packets, Ethiopian Berbere spice mix, and a horseradish sauce to go with your Christmas dinner before the year is out.