Pfenning’s Organic Farm and the Circular Economy of Food Waste
Pfenning’s Organic Farm and the Circular Economy of Food Waste

Pfenning’s Organic Farm and the Circular Economy of Food Waste

By: Erica Carmount

Like many farms in Canada, Pfenning’s Organic Farm in New Hamburg, Ontario, faces unique challenges in sustainability reducing food waste.

Pfenning’s has been operating as a family farm since 1981. Now a wholesale distribution center, the farm grows over 40 types of organic crops on 700 acres of land, providing local and imported fruits and vegetables year round.

As a farm, wholesaler, and importer, food loss is an unfortunate reality given a variety of factors. Whether it is produce not meeting aesthetic standards, items not surviving the supply chain due to perishability, or labour challenges, the result is a poly crisis of avoidable food insecurity and food loss. This crisis also produces significant food waste and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that nearly 60% (around 35.5 million tonnes) of food produced in Canada is lost and wasted annually, generating 56.5 million metric tonnes of C02 per year.

Recognizing the role that their operation could play in the food waste circuit, in May of 2023 Pfenning’s partnered with Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization. Partnering with thousands of food businesses, Second Harvest prioritizes the redistribution of perishable food items with the intention of tackling hunger and environmental protection.

Prior to partnering with Second Harvest, Pfenning’s donated to their long standing local charitable partners, including Wilmot Family Resource Center, KW Community Food Fridge, A Better Tent City, Neighbour to Neighbour in Hamilton, and The Local in Stratford. Pfenning’s continues to donate to these organizations, but there is more food to be rescued than what their capacity can handle. Without a market for “ugly” yet edible produce or an organization with the resources to sort, store, and distribute the food, fruits and vegetables not suitable for retail or processing would become animal feed for local urban growers or compost, a common practice for farmers when food surplus diversion options are limited.

For Maureen Kirkpatrick, Ontario Foodraising Manager for Second Harvest, there is considerable pressure on producers to meet the standards of producing cosmetically perfect products or face rejection. By providing a means to get that food to people in need is why the partnership between Second Harvest and its producer partners is so great. Tasked with finding new donors at the top end of the supply chain, Kirkpatrick also notes that nutritious whole foods are often some of the most costly products for people and non-profits to access. In Canada, there are four times the amount of food charities than there are grocery stores, a shocking statistic that speaks to this country’s food security crisis.

According to Jessica Wynne, Sustainability Specialist and Sales Associate at Pfenning’s, partnering with Second Harvest has allowed the farm to get food not suitable for retail or processing into the mouths of people who value the intrinsic value of it. By connecting the dots between producer and consumer, Pfenning’s has donated nearly 360,000 pounds of food in just one year that would have otherwise ended up as animal feed or on a compost pile.

“Through this partnership we’re able to not only meet our sustainability and philanthropic goals but we’re also able to feed the people that we set out to feed in the first place”.

– Jessica Wynne

While still in its infancy, the partnership with Second Harvest has grown into a fully circular economy. Unlike our current economic system that moves in a straight line from resource extraction to disposal, a circular economy considers waste to be a resource, not a cost. In September 2023, the two partnered on a waste reduction project, the first farm to pilot such an initiative with Second Harvest. At Pfenning’s, once produce is harvested from the field, it enters the warehouse to be sorted into grades based on three criteria. If the produce does not meet specific standards, it is placed in the grade out bin and picked up by Second Harvest. Second Harvest takes on the responsibility of sorting and distributing viable produce throughout their network, including food banks, hamper programs , shelters, meal program, drop-in centres , before/after school, summer camp programs, and faith-based organizations. Food that has past its perishability and is no longer suitable for donation is sent back to Pfenning’s as compostable matter to be added to the farms multi-step composing cycle for the next season. Roughly 5,000 pounds of compost is returned to the farm on a weekly basis. Since September, Pfenning’s has received over 129,000 pounds of food that would have otherwise been sent to the landfill.

According to Kirkpatrick the circular economy is something the agricultural community as a whole can be uniquely a part of given its keen awareness of the investments that go into growing food. “It’s the inputs, the finances, the sweat equity, the heart, the labour”, states Kirkpatrick, “and when we waste food we waste all of those things. I just think farmers are so invested in getting that food to where it belongs, which is to feeding people”.

The regenerative practice of returning nutrients back into the soil is also one of the foundational building blocks of organics. In addition to the circular economy of food, Pfenning’s partnership with Second Harvest supports the nutrient cycle of the farm’s soil health. Compost fuels the microbial life and symbiotic relationships between the plants and the fungi (mycorrhiza) in the soil. This process ultimately grows a crop that is healthier and more resistant to drought and pest pressure without the need to add artificial pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. Artificial nutrients and fertilizers stunt produce by damaging the symbiotic relationship between the plant and the fungi in the soil.

According to Wynne, the plant gets lazy when artificial nutrients are readily available, and therefore becomes less nutrient dense as opposed to if it searched for the nutrients itself. By letting nature take its course, Pfenning’s is improving the nutrient content in its produce while dramatically reducing its greenhouse gas emissions compared to its conventional farming counterparts.

In February of this year, Pfenning’s Organic Farm was awarded the From the Farm Award in recognition of its commitment to ‘no waste, no hunger’ by diverting surplus food to people and not the landfill.

Food rescue is not only paramount to feeding people, but preventing unnecessary food waste, according to Wynne, “is also one of the most pressing challenges in our society that we have the ability to make a difference for and have a meaningful impact on”.