A pile of beets lay on the white table. The beets are deep red in color with dark green leaves at the top. The beets are held together by a rubber band.
At the Haymarket Farmers’ Market, Daniels Produce sells a variety of items like beets. Photo by Kaylee Steen/NNS

Lincoln farmers at commercial and local levels battle misfit produce each harvest. Misfit produce — those that have blemishes, an abnormal shape or overripe — makes up about 63 million tons of food waste annually in the US.

With that in mind, what are local farmers doing with the produce that doesn’t reach the market? The answer is as much as they can with the resources they have.

Constant exposure to “perfect” produce at grocery stores influences consumers and creates an idea of what they should buy and use at home. This creates a challenge for farmers since not every crop planted makes it to storefronts, and develops the food waste issue seen today.

This issue doesn’t stop at commercial levels. Farmers who sell at the local level also face the “perfect” produce problem. 

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Pekarek’s Produce showcases its cucumbers and peppers in baskets at the Haymarket Farmers’ Market. Photo by Kaylee Steen/NNS

Even though farmers have more control over what they sell at farmers’ markets, it’s difficult to sell misfit produce because consumers regularly see standardized produce at grocery stores.

Local markets follow these standards to have a higher chance of selling products at the farmers’ market. The end goal is to sell as much as possible while following USDA standards, said Michael McCray, lead farmer of operations at Pekarek’s Produce.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a set of standards for the produce bought at grocery stores. Before it hits the shelves, the fruits and vegetables go through an extensive grading process. 

Inspectors look at the size, color, odor and flavor while grading. These grades range from A-D and substandard, then they’re linked to numbers that indicate the product’s freshness — A1 isn’t the best grade, but it is a common example of this. 

During the process of harvesting, if a crop has blemishes, is abnormally shaped or is overripe, then it’s considered a “misfit” or “ugly” and unsellable. Food Waste Feast, a blog educating readers about sustainable practices regarding food preparation, writes that about 20 percent of produce farmed can’t be sold commercially.

Companies like Misfits Market — a national subscription service that sells misfit produce at a discounted price — were made to combat the food waste issue. Even with the development of markets like these, farmers have a variety of methods to repurpose waste.

In a regular harvesting period, the amount of waste accumulated ranges from hundreds to thousands of pounds. This depends on the type of crop and its average weight — for example, tomatoes versus squash.

“On a weekly basis I’d say, well with summer squash, I’d say close to a thousand pounds a week of produce probably doesn’t make it to market,” McCray said. “Either through just over-ripens or doesn’t really look good enough to sell.”

Pekarek’s Produce, which started 16 years ago, has become one of the top five vegetable vendors in the Haymarket Farmers’ Market, McCray said. Based in Dwight, the produce company sells in Lincoln periodically throughout the week at the Haymarket Farmers’ Market, Sunday Farmers’ Market and the Hub Cafe Farmers’ Market, McCray said.

To combat waste, Pekarek’s Produce leaves the misfit produce to decompose on the land. The byproduct of this decomposition is full of nutrients that help fertilize the land for the next growing season.

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A plastic crate of tomatoes at the ShadowBrook Farm stand in the Haymarket Farmers’ Market. Photo by Kaylee Steen

ShadowBrook Farm of Lincoln uses the same method.

Charuth Banbeuzekom, partner at ShadowBrook Farm, said she doesn’t consider what’s left on the fields as waste because it still has a purpose of adding nutrients back into the land.

ShadowBrook Farm, which has been selling produce for about 28 years, travels to Lincoln, Omaha and Des Moines, Iowa, to sell at farmers’ markets.

Lainey Johnson, who runs Bright Hope Family Farm with her husband Andy Johnson, said they use their misfit produce at home for cooking or through composting to fertilize future crops. 

The Johnsons started selling produce five years ago and participate in the Sunday Farmers’ Market at Union College.

Compared to other farms, their amount of waste is smaller because they grow on about an acre of land — half is used for crops and the other is used for flowers. Johnson said because they grow fewer items on their Firth farm, it’s easier to repurpose the waste they accumulate.

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A basket holding jalapeños and tomatoes at the Bright Hope Family Farm stand during the Sunday Farmers’ Market at Union College. Photo by Kaylee Steen/NNS

Food waste starts at harvest and continues to increase during the selling period. Realistically, not every fruit and vegetable gets sold at farmers’ markets. So where does the unsold produce go?

Bright Hope Family Farm dries their unsold products from the market — like peppers and garlic — and creates seasonings to sell at future markets or use at home, Johnson said.

For ShadowBrook Farm, if they don’t sell all of their products at the market, then they feed the unsold produce to their chickens and pigs or use it for composting, Banbeuzekom said. In some instances, if food banks stop by their stand, they’ll donate the produce they didn’t sell that day.

Food waste isn’t going away as long as USDA standards are enforced at commercial levels. Instead of challenging the standardized system, local farmers find easier ways to repurpose the misfit and unsold produce.

“It’s definitely something that needs to be talked about more but it’s also kind of status quo,” McCray said. “It’s hard to change status quo.”

Hello there! My name is Kaylee Steen and I am a fourth-year journalism student at UNL. I'm a freelance graphic designer and photographer, but I've also started a paid internship where I run a few social media accounts. I enjoy writing about the environment, features, and nonprofit organizations. I can't wait to share my stories with you!