Selling the Unsellable

Farmers  used to call them seconds and sold them for a buck or two. Now savvy startups with names like Misfits Market, Hungry Harvest and Peculiar Picks are selling millions of dollars of blemished food to sustainability-minded consumers who are willing to pay extra trucking and delivery fees to receive a box of misshapen, hairy carrots.

These new food rescue operations are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in investment to serve a higher purpose: reduce food waste. There are many government and non-profit groups using various ways to measure food waste. Whether it’s measured in dollars or tons, the amount of food waste is massive.

Ugly produce is purchased direct from producers rather than having it spend time being shipped to grocery stores, sit on shelves, thrown in the dumpster and finally coming full circle in a landfill.

Like its more appealing counterpart that is a SPIN farmer’s stock in trade, ugly produce is organically grown and sold as weekly or biweekly subscriptions, which can range in price from $11 to $34 plus shipping. The average cost ends up being about $1 a pound. But it’s far from local. Sources are “hand-picked” farms, food hubs and distributors around the US, and sometimes beyond.

Some big retailers are also eager to have a waste reduction story to tell. If they start selling more ugly produce, the entire food industry could actually see, and lay claim to, significant long-term waste reduction. What they and the multi-million dollar ugly produce companies are getting good at is convincing consumers that industry rejects have value that goes far beyond their food value. Their pitch is that it is as healthful as picture-perfect produce, and buying it helps save the planet.

Perceptions are starting to change, with more consumers coming to accept a higher level of non-standard looking food. The sizeable market that has been created to buy some of it is evidence of the broad concern about it. The agriculture industry has taken notice. Slowly it is changing its viewpoint on standards-setting for how much imperfect food makes it to market.

Because of the relatively low volume of production of SPIN farmers, we don’t have much waste, and so we can’t contribute much to the food waste story. But there is a lesson in this for us. When you position cosmetically imperfect produce as somehow lesser, you’re stuck selling it for less. But if you promote it as being natural and reducing food waste, the discount can be less than what it would be otherwise.

Are our markets ready for this? Do those who frequent farmers markets interpret imperfection as naturalness or more “real”? How far will they go in buying it?  One way to find out is to mix a few blemished crops in with the standard ones.  A similar theory has been applied to how much effort to put into prepping and cleaning some produce. Including the green tops was a signal of how freshly harvested a crop was, and leaving some dirt on was re-enforcing a connection to the land. The fact that perfectly nutritious but odd looking vegetables are on a farmers table at market, and not in the waste stream, is another talking point.

SPIN farmers have long known that food with a story is worth a lot more than food without one. In our markets we are selling way more than just veggies. Emotion and social signaling to others are potent drivers of purchase decisions. Ugly produce is emerging as a new story to tell, if you have the right market and enough of it to sell. If not, just keep doing what SPIN farmers always have – throw it on the compost pile or take it to the kitchen.