2019 journal article
Farmer harvest decisions and vegetable loss in primary production
AGRICULTURAL SYSTEMS, 176.
The topic of food loss and waste has risen in importance since the revelation that an estimated 40% of food in America is never consumed. Losses at the field level, however, are not well understood, and economic and growing conditions that dictate decisions made by fruit and vegetable growers can determine how much food is left unharvested. Many strategies have been suggested to reduce food loss and waste, but their development has been informed by concerns at the consumer level, and may not motivate growers to reduce losses. This study sought to understand how growers make decisions regarding when to end the harvest, and explores growers' perceptions of strategies that would incentivize them to reduce losses. The authors conducted seventeen semi-structured interviews with mid-sized to large commercial vegetable growers in North Carolina. The resulting findings clarify the primary decision-making drivers affecting food loss in the field, including whether growers have an interested buyer, the quality of the produce, the available price, the financial risk of product rejection, and the priority of another field becoming mature and ready to harvest. Growers did not perceive losses to be of high enough volume or value to measure crops that were left unharvested in the field, though research indicates that the volume is actually significant. We also asked growers about their perceptions of strategies for reducing farm level losses that have been promoted in industry reports on the subject. These strategies include facilitating donation and supporting emerging markets that focus on imperfect produce. Neither of these aligned well with strategies that growers perceived as important, such as increasing demand, providing processing infrastructure, and facilitating a consistent market and prices. While some growers donate produce or participate in gleaning, these activities can be limited by continued negative perceptions. Findings from this research suggest that, in order to effectively reduce the loss of edible food at the farm level, growers must be included in the development of strategies, and those strategies must incentivize their participation in order to be effective.