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Colorado farmers can’t get their food to the table. One startup wants to lend hands.

Lack of labor, broken contracts with suppliers are why some farmers leave the majority of what they grow in the field, contributing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere

Volunteers work to glean heirloom watermelons on Michael Moss's farm southwest of Longmont on Sept. 5, 2018. (Provided by UpRoot)
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Last summer was a bad one for Michael Moss. A June hailstorm laid waste to his Kilt Farm southwest of Longmont, setting him back $60,000 in peppers and early-season produce — an amount just shy of the vegetable farm’s entire yearly revenue.

But his problems didn’t end with the weather. After scrambling to start the season over, Moss couldn’t find enough people to harvest his green beans — and lost that crop, too.

“When the beans started to be ready for harvest, we didn’t have the labor to come in and get them out of the field,” he said.

“If you miss the window, then they become woody and they’re not worth eating.”

With Moss working around the clock to bring in his tomatoes and artichokes, another $4,500 of green beans were left in the field.

Moss isn’t the only Colorado farmer who can’t hire enough workers. Fierce political debate around migrant laborers, along with broader cultural shifts, has meant that farm labor in the United States is in ever-shorter supply, year after year.

For one Western Slope fruit grower, the shortage of workers last summer was so bad that he left 40,000 pounds of peaches to rot on the tree.

And fruit left to rot is not just a question of farmers’ already-precarious pocketbooks, but also climate change. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a third of all food produced globally is wasted or lost somewhere in the supply chain, and that this accounts for 8 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

Now, with the help of the World Wildlife Fund and the Rocky Mountain Farmers’ Union, one startup, called UpRoot Colorado, is trying to fill the labor gap and bring nutrient-dense food to the hungry in the process.

Volunteers arrive at a glean at Chatfield Farms in Jefferson County in this 2018 file photo. (Provided by UpRoot)

Gleaning the leftovers

The idea for UpRoot came to David Laskarzewski, one of the organization’s founders, after he participated in a 2016 event in Denver called “Feeding the 5,000.”

Organized by the London-based nonprofit Feedback, “Feeding the 5,000” aimed to raise awareness of food waste by hiring chefs to make snacks with food that would have otherwise been thrown out, and then handing them out for free in downtown Denver.

For Laskarzewski, “Feeding the 5,000” was a window into surplus on Colorado farms. When the chefs came to its organizers and said they needed fresh produce to make curry, he and his team contacted area farmers, asking them if they had leftover vegetables that would otherwise go to waste.

They did. Over the course of 10 hours, Laskarzewski and a team of 20 volunteers harvested about 1,500 pounds of food from two Front Range farms. When the event had wrapped up, the experience stayed with him.

“We thought about how much food we got from the farms, and also, walking away from those farms — it was October. We were like … that’s not going to be used? There’s a lot out there,” Laskarzewski said.

That winter, he and his business partners Ciara Low and Maggie Brown researched food surplus in Colorado. The next year, UpRoot was born. Funded in part by grants from the World Wildlife Fund, the organization takes a double-pronged approach to food that is left on farms in Colorado.

First are the gleaners. When a Colorado farmer has a crop they can’t afford to get out of the field, UpRoot provides a team of volunteers, called gleaners, to harvest it and donate it to a local food bank, such as Community Food Share and Food Bank of the Rockies on the Front Range, and LIFT-UP, which runs seven pantries on the Western Slope.

The second is called the Mobile Farm Workforce. For $16 per laborer per hour, it offers on-demand workers to any Colorado farmer without enough hands to get a crop off the field. Begun as a pilot in September, the program has harvested some 200,000 pounds of food across 10 farms in the state. Laskarzewski hopes to grow it into a statewide workers’ co-op by 2020.

Putting a number on food waste

Food loss has been a problem on U.S. farms for decades. But what Laskarzewski found as UpRoot was conceived is that quantitative research on it is still sparse and relatively new, which makes addressing the roots of the problem harder.

Lisa Johnson, a research scholar at North Carolina State University, is at the vanguard of studying agricultural surplus in the United States. In a recent paper, Johnson measured the amount of food left on the field across 68 North Carolina farms.

On average, Johnson found that about 42 percent of all food grown was lost. This isn’t an exact figure. In fact, losses varied from 10 to 80 percent, depending on the farm, she said.

But before Johnson’s work, there was almost no data on how much food is actually left on U.S. farms. Most institutions, including the USDA and the UN, just used a decades-old estimate from a plant pathologist that put the number closer to 20 percent.

This 42 percent is significant. Rotting vegetables, if they’re not properly composted, make methane as they decompose, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world,” Laskarzewski said.

A harvest crew with the Tuxedo Corn Company of Olathe Colo., works to remove thousands of ears of its Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn crop from a field west of Olathe July 10, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There are a lot of factors that contribute to nearly half of America’s produce never leaving the field, Laskarzewski and Johnson said. For one, Americans just don’t tend to buy ugly vegetables, which means that tons of misshapen carrots and wonky peppers go to waste every year without grocery stores or restaurants to take them.

But beyond aesthetic concerns are larger structural problems. The top reason for food getting left on the field is a farmer won’t be able to find a buyer for it, Johnson said. Big grocery chains will sign a contract for a certain amount of vegetables, but then break it if they find a better deal down the road.

Meanwhile farmers, who take on most of the financial risk of growing a crop, will plant extra food if they get a contract, to hedge their bets in case of hurricane or hail.

This often leads to institutions like the USDA blaming farmers for food that’s left on the farm, as opposed to looking more seriously at other factors.

“Recommendations are often [given] at the growing level, like ‘Growers just need to reduce overproduction — it’s their fault,’” Johnson said.

But, for a farmer like Moss, there’s not much choice but to overplant, Laskarzewski said. Even though many contracts come with a rider that allows the buyer to break the deal after the crop is planted, they still represent security in a difficult profession.

“Farming is economically not an easy vocation to make ends meet all the time,” Laskarzewski said.

“If someone comes to you as a farmer and says, I’ve got this $50,000 contract, you’re like: ‘Awesome. I’ll pay my bills, feed my family, have a good year.’”

Colorado needs farm labor

UpRoot can’t do much about contracts, or America’s demand for perfect vegetables. But once a contract is broken, or, even if a farmer is just growing a crop with plans to sell it at a market, the biggest obstacle to getting vegetables off the field is finding and paying for labor.

Moss and Erin Dreistadt and Natalie Condon, two other Boulder County farmers, say labor represents about 50 percent of their annual costs. As vegetable farmers, they mostly rely on human hands to harvest crops, not machinery. Usually, they can barely find enough.

“Every season we lose a few beds to weeds. We didn’t get there in time, and the weeds take over. The turnips can’t grow because the weeds are so big and they’re growing faster,” said Dreistadt, one of the owners of Aspen Moon Farm near Hygiene.

Dreistadt employs from four to 25 people over the course of a year, with the most during the peak harvest season. But even with a full crew, the farm falls behind.

“We don’t have enough people. We don’t have a buffer. So everybody’s working 65, 66, 67 hours a week, which is a lot for people,” she says.

Small farms across the Front Range see a lot of burnout, Dreistadt said, estimating a yearly turnover of more than half the staff.  Part of the reason labor is in such short supply is wages. Farm work pays about the same as flipping burgers, Dreistadt said, but is grueling.

“It’s really hard work in all kinds of weather. There’s tons of mosquitoes all the time. There’s spiders. There’s a lot of lifting. There’s a lot of bending over and stuff.”

Sweaty and demanding as the work is, few Colorado farmers are in a place to raise their vegetable prices and pay their laborers more.

“You can’t really raise your prices of vegetables to something that would reflect the labor that goes into it. If you raise your prices at the farmer’s market, people probably just won’t buy,” Dreistadt said.

A wheat field at Metrogro Farm near Deer Trail, photographed on Sept. 19, 2018. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

As is, Dreistadt and Condon, the owner of Isabelle Farm in Lafayette, rely heavily on farm stores and Community-Supported Agriculture (CSAs) — outlets catering to customers who want local food and are willing to pay for it.

“You tell me, where else are vegetables coming from? They’re coming from places where people make $14 a day. Here we pay $16 an hour. In Mexico, they pay $10 to $14 a day. You don’t have to charge a lot for a tomato if you’re not paying your workers anything,” Condon said.

UpRoot’s gleaners are free. The food they harvest goes to food banks like Community Food Share, Harvest of Hope and Food Bank of the Rockies. In 2016 and 2017, the organization worked with about 20 farms across the state, gleaning between 10,000 and 16,000 pounds of fresh produce, Laskarzewski said.

Moss was among the farmers who used the gleaners — for cabbages in 2017, and for watermelons in 2018.

“If I see that there’s a lot of something that I’m not going to be able to get to, that’s when I call gleaners to come in and really get it out of the field for me,” he said.

Those watermelons and cabbages are a boon to Coloradans who don’t have access to adequate nutrition.

“I think [UpRoot] is filling a great need in terms of utilizing food surplus on farms,” Community Food Share spokeswoman say Julia McGee says.

McGee estimates that Community Food Share has taken some 10,000 pounds of produce from UpRoot since its inception. The food bank has its own gleaning program as well, which works in collaboration with UpRoot.

“It’s such a win-win,” she says. “We’re getting our people produce that’s normally very expensive to get. And we’re collaborating with local farmers.”

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

For Condon and Dreistadt, the more important part of the startup is the Mobile Farm Workforce — whose staff, in its pilot season, was 28 percent veterans. They cost more than her regular workforce, said Dreistadt, but she called them 10 times during the season.

Unlike other farm workers, they don’t require heavy paperwork — and it’s on-demand labor, billed per hour, which better reflects the changing realities of a farm’s needs.

“If you hire an employee, then you have this person. You’ve already committed to hours and they’ve arrived. You have to come up with other work for them to do. Farming is dependent on nature, which is this huge unknown,” she said.

Condon, Dreistadt and Moss describe UpRoot as a missing piece of the puzzle — a way to make it possible for workers and farmers to make ends meet.

Laskarzewski has broader ambitions. He sees the Mobile Farm Workforce as a path for farm workers across the state to organize. He’d like them to have greater ownership over their skills and their profession.

“The goal is to create a cooperative. A statewide worker-owned cooperative,” he said. “If it were year-round, potentially it could be a job that would pay livable wages.”

As for his gleaners — the hundred or so volunteers who harvest vegetables that would otherwise go to waste, he sees the work as an educational service to the community, as well as a way to supply nutrient-dense produce to food banks.

“The connection is having people realize that farms are a cornerstone of your community and your lives,” he said.

“If you create a healthy food system, it will take the burden off your health care system, because people will be healthy. If you can value food, if you can value and appreciate food … you won’t waste it.”

4:53 p.m., March 11, 2019: This story has been updated to correct the name of the World Wildlife Fund and to correct that Lisa Johnson is a research scholar at North Carolina State University.

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