What Being a Farmworker Taught Me About Food Waste
I know too much about apples.
This time last year, I was working in an apple packing warehouse for three and a half months. Before that, I worked for three months as a farmhand planting lettuce, napa cabbage, celery, and silverbeet.
In 2020 I lived in Queensland, Australia, where I was trying to make some money and get a visa extension (which requires working-holiday visa holders to complete 88 days of regional farm work). For context, my coddled ass had never worked outside a day in my life. I’ve had hard jobs, but never like this.
Before I moved to Australia, I had a desk job. I lived in a city my whole life and had never seen a sheep or a lamb in a pasture. The whole purpose of leaving Canada was to get some much-needed perspective.
The learning curve of being a farmworker is STEEP. It’s not unusual to be called slow or told you’re not doing things right. My supervisors didn’t mince words. Not only is the job physical, but it requires hours and hours of perpetual focus in ever-changing and somewhat intense climate conditions.
I witnessed firsthand that farmworkers are SKILLED workers. The idea that agricultural manual labour “is widely designated unskilled” is complete and utter bullshit y’all. Migrant farmworkers dominate the horticultural workforce in many parts of the world, and they deserve more respect and rights than they currently receive. Farmworkers do thankless work. I learned mental toughness from farmworkers that have been labouring for years. I know this topic is part of a whole other tangent, but as someone who only dipped in and out of the agricultural world for half a year, I recognize my privilege and see the need to spread awareness on this topic.
*Exhales* Ok, back to food waste. Working on a farm and getting a glimpse into the food system was a game-changer.
Here’s how my six months as a farmworker shifted my perspectives about food and food waste:
I don’t expect fruits and vegetables to be perfect.
If you saw how much imperfect produce (too big, too small, not shaped quite right, too heavy etc.) is left in the field, you’d be shocked. When I was on a planting crew, and we were done for the day, I’d often go to the plots of land near our break shed and cut whatever I could get before they plowed it up. We’re talking HUGE heads of lettuce or stalks of celery that weren’t fully grown at the time of harvesting. If I took too much (and I often did because it killed me to see it get wasted), I shared it with people in the hostel I lived in.
Between so many people facing food insecurity and paying high prices for produce from the grocery store, I couldn’t believe thousands of pounds of food was never making it out of the dirt. That’s why I started trying to rescue some of it.
Imperfect Produce estimates that about 20% of all fruit and vegetables are consigned to the dump because they do not conform to the industry standard. Nature loves variety, but supermarkets do not. Now that I don’t have the same ease of access to food straight from farmers, I buy as much food as I can that is marked down (because it needs to be eaten ASAP) or sold as imperfect. If I’m not perfect, why should I expect my food to be?
I see every single piece of produce as a small miracle.
I worked in an area that was in the middle of a multi-year drought. The town I lived in, Stanthorpe, had to get water trucked in from other locations for homes and businesses. When I was there, it was clear that the farms in and around the town were suffering immensely because their dams were too dry to put as many crops in the ground as they normally would.
Just like humans, plants are delicate. Not only do they need water, but too much or too little sun can impact them as well. When I was working, we had to get rid of any apples with insect bites or fruit bat punctures. It’s truly a miracle we have so much to choose from, but it’s easy to forget when you’re living in the land of plenty.
I saw how many people and resources (often scarce) it took to grow a single apple tree or row of lettuce. Once grown, it takes tons more labour to pick, pack, sell, and ship all of that produce (while keeping whatever it is fresh and undamaged) to a grocery store where it is unloaded in near-perfect condition for consumers.
Food is precious, not disposable. When I go into the produce section now, I can’t help but be in awe of the selection in front of me. Thousands of people made that happen. A perfect blemish-free pear or pint of ripe berries really is amazing.
I see food waste as a disrespect to the planet and the people who grew it.
When I lived alone, I would often aspirationally buy plastic tubs of greens and let them rot in my fridge. Instead, I’d eat corn chips and salsa (both shelf-stable items) for dinner. If there was something to remind me that there are hundreds of litres of embedded water in that tub of rotting greens, do you think I would have thought twice about it? Maybe. Now I sure do.
The fact that those little plant pieces made it as far as they did, in the condition they did, only to rot in my fridge, is so beyond stupid. It’s disrespectful to the entire food system and all the people who worked hard to grow that food and get it to me.
When I worked in an apple shed, the owners treated every single apple like it mattered — because they did. Their crop yield the year I was there was really low (because of the drought) so they had to get as much value as they could out of what was there. Even ugly apples that weren’t good enough for the supermarket were sent away to be made into apple juice.
Farmer’s don’t waste anything because they can’t afford to. I started seeing my crisper drawers the same way.
According to Jonathan Bloom, roughly half the food that’s produced in the U.S. goes in the garbage.
Since I’ve been back in Canada, I’ve occasionally caught myself taking what’s in my fridge for granted. The supply chain and people that deliver my fruits and veggies these days are out of sight, but I don’t want to let them slip out of my mind.
Earth Day can serve as a reminder to check yourself. It reminded me to practice what I preach and use up two bunches of cilantro that were about to go off.
Cutting your food waste is single-handedly the easiest way to be more eco-friendly. This isn’t anything radical, but it is a simple way to respect the earth and the people that make our abundant food landscape a thing.
I’m no hippy (whatever that even means anymore) or expert on this subject. I’m just someone from North America who came face-to-face with the food system I took for granted my whole life. I will never look at an apple or head of lettuce the same way again.