We in Central Oregon, despite our fame as a semi-desert, are incredibly lucky to have dozens of local food proprietors. From dairies to alpaca farms, from egg-specialists to vegetable gurus. If we’re intentional, we really can live off of only locally sourced food. That is special.
Our national food supply chain has been tested and broken during this time baring an increase in food insecurity AND wasted food: what a confusing dichotomy in a sentence. How can that be? Hungry people and wasted food? I’m not going to even try to out-write Michael Pollan. He has thoroughly and eloquently explored this topic here in his article for the New York Times, “The Sickness in our Food Supply.” Interestingly, as he points out, local farms have been a little more resilient during the COVID pandemic than some large-scale national or multi-national farms. Although coronavirus caused a hard hit to many of our local farms as meat and vegetable suppliers to local restaurants, the farms were able to expand their CSA offerings to reach more local people in a different way. And luckily, our farmer’s markets are all opening this year! Luckily for us and luckily for all of the farms and local businesses who rely on them to exist.
Two Local Farms and Wasted Food Prevention
I got a chance to ask a few questions about food waste on the farm to the amazing folks at both Boundless Farmstead (featured in the header photo) and Rainshadow Organics (featured in the photo at the end of this article).
First, tell us who you are and what you do for your farm.
Rainshadow: My name is Eleanor Babcock and I am Rainshadow’s Farm Store/Outreach Manager. I manage CSA and farmers market logistics, run our Farm Store, plan and organize our farm to table events, manage website updates, write emails and blog posts, assist with social media marketing, and keep up with general communication and inquiries to the farm.
Boundless: We are David and Megan; farmers, co-owners, and partners in everything.
Why is food waste prevention important to you?
Rainshadow: Spending almost two years at Rainshadow has allowed me to truly experience the seasons of farm food. We begin by planting seeds, which must be closely monitored to ensure proper germination. Once they become seedlings they are very vulnerable to temperature swings and sunlight. We work hard to provide our baby food plants the right environment to grow. We keep them moist and warm, cover them when they need it, and monitor their overall growth. Once the plants are established we harden them off in a propagation house to wear them into the outside environment. Then, once they are big enough, they are transplanted into the ground where they need to be cultivated and weeded many times as they grow bigger. Central Oregon can be harsh and we are constantly covering and uncovering our transplants to ensure they stay at a comfortable temperature. Once they become mature, we harvest, wash, pack, and deliver the food where it is meant to go.
This all being said, my time at Rainshadow has illuminated the amount of energy and constant care it takes to raise organic food. Now that I know how much work and time it took to grow my food, food waste is of the utmost importance. I think it is incredibly important for the community to be aware of how long it takes for their food to grow and how much energy the farmers put into their food, from seed to table:
- It takes 14 months for an onion to be ready to eat.
- Potatoes spend eight months in the ground before they are ready to harvest.
- Tomatoes take 5 months to begin to produce fruit.
And during that time, the farmers are constantly caring for the plants to ensure maximum nutrient-density and production. Once I became aware of that work, wasting good, edible food felt like throwing away time and energy.
What are some things that you do on your farm to prevent food waste?
Boundless: Our entire business is focused on the reduction of food waste for environmental, economical, and social reasons. Environmentally, by growing more food than can be consumed, we are using our precious water unwisely and not using our resources to their full potential. Our farm was founded on our love for the environment and the natural world. We would be doing a disservice to our mission and to our earth by not responsibly utilizing the resources given to us. Economically, by growing more food than can be consumed, we are spending more of our finances on labor, seeds, amendments, etc. Farms already operate on very slim margins and it is crucial we act with efficiency. Socially, by growing more food than can be consumed, we are not growing a fair and equitable product or business.
Of course, to participate in our capitalist society, we must sell some of our product for money. But, by doing so, we are also enabled to donate the remaining product to food pantries. When we can meet our bottom line and have enough money to live personally sustainable lives, then we are able to donate more food.
Our food waste prevention starts at the beginning of the farming process: the crop planning. At Boundless, we do extensive crop planning by talking with chefs/buyers about their needs for the upcoming year, reviewing our numbers from the farmers market and CSA, and comparing year after year. By doing so, we are able to plan exactly how many vegetables we need to seed and plant to reach our harvest goals. During crop planning, we add in a “safety factor” and increase our plantings by 20-30% to ensure we have the quantity we need for the harvest desired. After the harvest begins, we are able to utilize our three outlets (farmers market, CSA, and wholesale) to diversify the potential of products being consumed. If we have a large quantity of something, we talk with our chefs about doing specials, or we do discounts for consumers desiring to do preservation products, etc. When there is product left over beyond the sales outlets, we work closely with the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance and Bend Food Project to either directly donate produce or utilize their “glean team” to help us glean product from the farm.
We also use a lot of “small” food waste prevention techniques including a fast and clean harvest/post-harvest, so that products last longer out of the field, using “seconds” for home preservation or fermentation projects, working with chefs to use our less than perfect produce for items like pestos, purees, etc., and doing twice-weekly whole field walks to determine how all crops look and how best to utilize them in the coming weeks.
Rainshadow: I think many of our interns/apprentices and full-time farm staff are truly aware of the energy it takes to produce food. We don’t find ourselves with much edible food waste on the farm. We have a commercial kitchen where we are licensed to pickle and ferment excess vegetables. Our full-time chef, Travis Taylor works hard to preserve all our extra food as it comes out of the field. If we have any food waste on the farm it is either fed to the pigs or fed to our compost piles which makes a closed-loop circle on the farm. When we feed our compost or moldy/excess food to the pigs, we are transferring that energy to create new food. When we add food waste to the compost, we are creating food for our soil microbes and providing our plants with the necessary nutrients.
What are some barriers to food waste reduction you have encountered or noticed on your farm or on other farms?
Rainshadow: I feel we have implemented many systems to help us reduce any food waste on our farm. We have many different food streams to share our food with the community. We feel so fortunate to have so many outlets for our food. Our commercial kitchen and preservation helps us really mitigate any waste from excess or abundant crops. I could see farms that have more narrow outlets for selling and preserving food having trouble with extras coming out of the field.
Boundless: The biggest barrier we have found on our farm is the lack of time and labor to always be able to donate produce. For example, every late spring, we transition our greenhouses from early-season crops to midseason crops. Typically, we transition beds of spinach, lettuce, salad mix, and arugula, to something like peppers and tomatoes. When the time finally comes to till in the early season crops, we like to cut all of the remaining usable crops and donate them. In 2018 and 2019, we called on HDFFA’s glean team to help us harvest, wash, sort, pack, and deliver. This process would have taken David and me nearly half a day to complete, plus drive time. With the glean team, we are able to donate about 100lbs of greens in less than two hours.
In 2020, due to COVID concerns, we were unable to have the glean team out. When the time came to transition our tunnels, I felt at a loss on how to make it happen. David and I were both completely slammed with farm work and couldn’t take the extra hours to do all of the work needed to donate. Luckily, Seed to Table heard our plea and was able to come to the rescue. We were able to harvest all of the greens, and Seed to Table was able to do the wash, sort, and delivery to food pantries. Without their help, I do not think we would have been able to donate.
Do you have any book / film / lecture recommendations to help folks better understand food waste or innovations to prevent it? And is there anything else you would like to add?
Rainshadow: I really recommend that our community checks our Project Green Bin. This home-composting program collects food scraps from households in Bend and transports them to Rainshadow where they are fed to our pigs. It’s a win-win as our community members now have a stream for their food waste and we contribute to the growth of our tasty pork! If the pigs choose not to eat the scraps, it decomposes in their pasture and feeds the soil we use to plant wheatgrass or triticale in the spring.
- Rethink Waste: One of our newest Deschutes County hotels, SCP Redmond, has partnered with Project Green Bin and Rainshadow to add their commercial food waste to your pig pen. They also buy back some of your produce and meat products. What a nice local way to close the loop! Also, have you been to their rooftop bar yet?
Boundless: I would recommend everyone buy a canning book or two and get some preservation under their belt! Pickled items and jams are a great way to use “seconds” and are very safe ways to begin canning and preserving!
I would love to add that, as a small farmer, we need our community to have flexibility in aesthetics to ensure minimal food waste. The food that comes to the grocery store is the cream of the crop (pun intended). Those items have been selected for their aesthetics before being shipped off, and then picked through again once they come to the grocery store. There are two points of food waste already in the chain. When we bring our items to the farmers market, most small farms will do some sorting, but we do not want to waste products we know are nutrient dense, super fresh, and maybe just look different than what we are used to. So please, buy the twisted carrot, the split tomato, or the flea beetle bitten arugula, because every piece of produce brought to market was treated with the same love and care as the next, even if it looks a little different.