Imperfect Implications

We all love the fun pictures of produce oddities, epitomized by the  @UglyFruitandVeg feed and sold in the East Bay by Imperfect.  Yet, a new study from Minnesota raises some interesting questions on how increased adoption of  “off-spec” fruits and vegetables might impact farmers’ bottom lines.

On the plus side, new markets for produce with slightly subpar size, shape or coloring could mean new revenue streams. Then again, it could also hurt prices growers receive for their ‘perfect’ items, the so-called #1 produce.

That conundrum is reflected in the (sub)title of the research project, Beyond Beauty:   Opportunities and Challenges of Cosmetically Imperfect Produce. This research, undertaken primarily by JoAnne Berkenkamp for Tomorrow’s Table took two forms—a survey of 138 Minnesota farmers and one-on-one interviews with many of those growers. Berkenkamp then distilled findings from both into a presentation (view slides only here).

Market cannibalization is the key issue illuminated in this study. The real question: can the produce market absorb more product without pushing prices down? At the same time, there are other unknowns. Would increased acceptance of imperfects create markets for local growers to reach consumers with smaller budgets? Would less stringent cosmetic standards from retailers mean less pressure on growers to overproduce—to ensure enough ‘supermodel’ fruits and vegetables—and potentially lower input costs, financially and environmentally.

Berkenkamp noted (by e-mail) that this research complicates what had previously been a straightforward progression—the more uglies sold the better. The study highlights the need for further research by ag economists on the impact of expanded sales of imperfect produce and more thought on how we proceed in marketing those foods.

Some of the study’s other notable findings include:

  • An estimated 75 percent of Minnesota’s imperfect produce is plowed under, composted or fed to animals.
  • Growers are quite interested in selling more cosmetically-challenged product—82 percent of those surveyed were moderately or very interested.
  • One tomato farmer said that about 60 percent of her tomato crop used to be cosmetically imperfect, which prompted a shift to indoor growing.
  • The most commonly stated barrier to marketing imperfects is…a lack of an attractive market. Cost of labor, lack of available labor and being too busy around harvest time are other leading barriers.
  • Crops with the best prospects for expanded sale of imperfects are tomatoes, cukes, apples, zucchini, squash, watermelon, potatoes, cauliflower, pie pumpkins, and peppers.

Finally, Berkenkamp stressed that the findings are specific to Minnesota. While there parallels to be drawn to other states, all farming circumstances and cultures are somewhat unique. Just like every piece of produce.

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