Creating A Market For Misfits

MisfitMarket

Thanks to Henry Alford for all the references in this New Yorker short piece on efforts to establish market value for produce normally treated as misfits are treated, which is to say shunned at best:

For “Ugly” Produce, Beauty Is Rind Deep

Misshapen fruits and vegetables and the farmers who love them.

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Illustration by João Fazenda

You did not anticipate this plot point: you’ve decided to pony up twenty-three fifty a week to receive a regular shipment of organic “ugly produce,” perhaps because you’ve read that about half of the produce in the United States goes uneaten, or maybe because you’ve been charmed by a Web site that boasts of “rescuing” foodstuffs such as “onions that are too small, potatoes that are shaped like your favorite celebrity, and carrots that fell in love and got twisted together.” You glow with a sense of mission. But, when your first shipment of ugly produce arrives and you peer inside the recyclable cardboard box, you do a double take: the produce is not ugly. And not a single potato looks like Abe Vigoda.

“I would first redefine it as misfit produce,” Abhi Ramesh, the founder and C.E.O. of Misfits Market, said on the phone the other day. (It is Misfits Market’s Web site that is quoted above.) “The market calls it ugly produce, but ‘ugly’ ends up being only a small portion of it. The variations are standard: produce that’s too small or too large or that has slight discoloration.”

The economics of agriculture make selling misshapen produce an expensive proposition for farmers. “A lot of times with off-grade produce, there’s a scratch or a dent or a puncture, which reduces shelf life dramatically,” Andrew Rose, of New Sprout Organic Farms, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, said. His outfit sells to Misfits Market’s competitor, Hungry Harvest.

Maybe beauty is only rind deep. During three weeks’ worth of Misfits Market deliveries this summer, one customer received many delicious fruits and vegetables, some of them slightly undersized. But, on the ugliness front, the offerings were community theatre, not Broadway.

How do growers decide who gets what? Amy Moreno-Sills, who, with her husband, runs Four Elements Farm, in Puyallup, Washington, said, “As a farmer, I don’t have the luxury of determining what’s ugly or not. It’s marketplace-driven.” Grocery chains and high-end restaurants follow the Department of Agriculture’s specifications, or their own standards, when it comes to size and degrees of spoilage. “Wholesalers always need consistent quality products,” Mike Nolan, of Earth Spring Farm, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, said. “They’re not going to be able to deal with peeling a two-legged or twisted carrot.”

Read the whole story here.

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