A partnership between a California cattle producer and the world’s largest carrot grower may show agriculture how to “close the circle” in a way that minimizes food loss, cuts expenses and reduces the use of fuel and water.

In an exchange that demonstrates the potential of a “circular economy,” Justin Pettit, founder of Santa Carota Beef in Bakersfield, receives carrot culls, mash – the pulp left over from juicing carrots – and silage crops like Sudan grass from Grimmway Farms, also based in Bakersfield. The result: carrot-finished beef.

“Carrot-finished beef is light and flavorful and doesn’t weigh the consumer down. The moisture in the carrots inflates the muscle tissue and makes the meat juicy,” said Pettit. 

Grimmway Farms is proud that carrot byproducts – which could have been dumped in a landfill – are being repurposed for cattle feed. The company is also excited about using rinse water from its packing operations to irrigate silage crops. Grimmway has agreements with about eight purchasers across the United States, including cattle and dairy operations. 

“Those agreements are strategically in place in the regions in which we have processing facilities, in an effort to maximize the utilization of carrot byproduct," said Russ Hamlin, president of operations for Grimmway Farms. "Our program…varies based on commodity, waste type, and a mutually beneficial relationship.” 

More than a third of the food produced in the U.S. is never eaten, according to a 2023 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “From Field to Bin.”

“Wasted food is the single most common material landfilled and incinerated in the United States, comprising 24% and 22% of landfilled and combusted municipal solid waste (MSW), respectively, presenting opportunities for increased prevention and recycling,” the report said.

Russel Hamlin - Headshot.jpgRussell Hamlin, Grimmway FarmsDeveloping a circular economy in agriculture could reduce such numbers. At the farm level, this involves finding ways for agricultural producers to get as many resources as possible from one another as efficiently as possible. Even when such changes would save money and help the environment, it can be difficult to encourage companies to make certain shifts. It takes time, effort, and forward-thinking approaches from both parties. 

Another example of a circular economy is the use of livestock waste to reduce both water and fertilizer usage.

Netafim, the precision agriculture business of Mexico-based Orbia Advance Corp., has a system to recycle wastewater from dairy farms. The effluent flows through a filter system and is mixed with fresh water to be used to irrigate feed crops. Elizabeth Goodman, dealer relationship manager for Netafim USA, said the use of the water can save farmers $150 to $200 an acre in fertilizer costs. 

However, it is not always true that redirecting produce to become animal feed is preferable to leaving the food unharvested in the field to be returned to the soil, said Ned Spang, associate professor of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis. 

“This will depend on whether the environmental benefit of displacing some quantity of animal feed ingredients, i.e. corn that would need to be grown and processed, is greater than the environmental cost of harvesting, treating, i.e. drying, milling, and transporting on the on-farm food losses. Trusted partnerships between growers and livestock producers are critical for this exchange,” Spang said. 

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He added clear communication is necessary for a mutual understanding of expectations like payment, quality of product, and timing of pickup and delivery. In the Santa Carota-Grimmway case, the communication is facilitated by proximity. Friendship is also a factor. 

“This partnership is built on 20 years of good relations between my family and the one behind Grimmway Farms. It’s also built on the knowledge that the cows like carrots. This crop is their candy. My family has been feeding carrots to cows since the 1980s,” said Pettit. 

Cattle are good animals to test partnerships because they can eat a wide variety of produce. 

There are a number of partnerships between dairies and fruit and vegetable growers in California’s Central Valley, said Michael McCullough, professor of agribusiness at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. 

“The problem with feeding dairy [cows] fruit and vegetables is any change in diet can change milk production. So the milking herd tends to need a more consistent diet and the gleanings usually go to dry cattle, heifers, and calf operations. Also, garlic and onions pass through and affect the taste of the milk,” said McCullough.

Larger questions include whether the cost of transporting the produce to the cattle makes economic sense for the parties. The ease and straightforwardness of finding buyers and sellers are critical. 

A 2024 research project by a Cal Poly student team indicated less than 2% of food loss occurs post-harvest. There is more food waste, or spoilage of uneaten food at the consumer level, in the home.

“It would take a huge shift in American food purchasing behavior to change this…[like] more frequent trips to grocery stores with smaller purchases,” said McCullough. 

Animal agriculture producers have the ability to model ways for other producers to reduce food loss and consumers to reduce food waste. Pettit accomplishes this by advocating for using every part of the cow. 

“We sell beef suet sourced from Santa Carota cattle to Lucky Pearl, a Long Beach-based skin care company. In the future, I see our family supplying animal-based elements for dog food. We already sell dry leftover culled carrots to be ground up for dog food,” said Pettit.

Pettit said he enjoys visiting restaurants and distributors to explain how Santa Carota and Grimmway’s relationship works. 

“When we work cooperatively and efficiently with trusted partners, our biggest competitor is us yesterday,” said Pettit. 

Spang said improving understanding of food losses on the farm creates the potential for coming up with solutions to reduce food waste. 

“There are increasing options for secondary markets [like] Imperfect Foods, platforms to connect buyers and sellers [like] Full Harvest, organizations seeking to streamline donation [like] Farm Link, and opportunities to upcycle surplus food into new food products, [like] Matriark Foods. We all have a role to play in reducing food waste. There are strategies to improve how we shop for food, store food and cook and eat food,” he said. 

McCullough said growers and animal agriculture producers’ partnerships show that public food waste is a cross-cutting issue.

“Food waste can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, decreased economic stability for growers and consumers, overuse of natural resources, and increased dependence on fossil fuels. There are some great innovations out there that try and tackle these issues holistically. Folks should know that everything in the economy is connected,” McCullough said. 

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