5 of the Best Foods for the Environment, According to Farmers

These fruits, veggies, and legumes are not only good for your health, but also good for Mother Earth.

Sustainability is no longer just a trendy buzzword tossed around by eco-conscious millennials—it's a way of life. Many shoppers keep environmentally-friendly options in mind as they browse grocery store shelves for products that cut back on waste and non-recyclable materials. But when it comes to the produce section, it may be difficult for an everyday consumer to discern which fruits, vegetables, and legumes have generated less of a carbon footprint before making their way into carts or baskets. For guidance, we chatted with a handful of farmers from California, the country's biggest producer of agriculture ($49 billion in cash receipts alone for 2020's output, to be exact), to get their expert take on the crops that require less water, less maintenance, and less replanting which, ultimately, make them much friendlier for the environment. Check out their top five recommendations below.

variety apples leaves green red
Blaine Moats


Diversified farming, the ability to grow multiple crops in one area, is a good first step to making any farm more sustainable. Many plants work together in a way that's mutually beneficial, resulting in a wonderfully diverse bounty that can yield even more output.

"In addition to wine grapes, we have been farming apples on the same land for 57 years," reveals Steve Dutton, president of Dutton Ranch. "This multi-generational experience in farming the same crop on the same land has led us to be able to dry farm and rely only on natural rainfall for most of our 200 acres of apples."

"For the past 20 years, we have also been farming our apples certified organic, which minimizes inputs and resources," he adds. Additionally, an apple's versatility beyond the whole fruit (i.e. used in applesauce and apple cider vinegar) makes it even more of an environmental win since there is less food waste.


Beans are not only the nutritious and delicious legumes found in nearly every type of international cuisine, but they're also one of the most environmentally-friendly crops in the world. Connor Murphy, farm manager at Santa Rosa Junior College's Shone Farm, grows several varieties of heirloom dry beans and raves about their sustainability.

"Beans fix nitrogen as they grow—[meaning they] literally grow their own fertilizer, plus extra for next year's crop," he says. "Our beans are also watered using drip irrigation, efficiently providing precise quantities of water directly to the root zone to limit evaporation and runoff."

This water source is also classified as "tertiary-treated," meaning that it is recycled because nearby residents have used it in their homes prior to the treatment process.

"Dry beans also store for extended periods of time, which allows us to have a marketable crop throughout the year without the high energy costs of artificial lighting and heat," he adds.

Crane Melons

The exceptionally sweet and juicy Crane melon, a hybrid of Japanese melon and a Californian cantaloupe, is a lesson in adaptability and ingenuity.

Its founder, Oliver Crane, discovered and perfected a way to maintain the flavor and texture of the notoriously "thirsty" and water-dependent fruit in the early 1900s, despite growing it in an environment that may have seemed initially unfarmable.

"Due to the terroir on the farm, the melons required very little water to thrive," shares Cindy Crane, owner of Crane Melon. "We still grow them today, in the same way and in the spot where Oliver invented them. Customers are often surprised by this 'dry farming' technique, but it results in a deliciously sweet Crane Melon, picked ripe daily every September and October."

While less rainfall may yield a smaller output, the Cranes remain committed to relying on Mother Nature to do her thing rather than bringing in less environmentally-friendly reinforcements to water the vines and create the necessary moisture.

Moroccan Spiced Olives
James Carriere


Olives may be polarizing in taste, but there's one thing all farmers agree upon: They're wonderfully sustainable. Samantha Dorsey, president of McEvoy Ranch, claims that the shelf-stable export is a California gem for a variety of reasons.

First and foremost, olives demand less energy than other crops. "They do not require refrigeration or cold-chain transport," Dorsey says. "Also, being a plant-based fat, there are none of the issues that come along with all of the animal-based products like methane emissions, water usage, and inefficient nutrient conversion."

Next, they also use much less water than most commodity crops in California. By comparison, olives require less than half the usual amount of water necessary to grow almonds in a year.

And lastly, unlike other seed oils, extra virgin olive oil is naturally (physically) extracted and not chemically (which requires the use of a solvent that isn't the most environmentally friendly).

Wine Grapes

It's no surprise that California farmers tout the beloved wine grape as one of its most environmentally-friendly exports. In 2014, Sonoma County's winegrowers made a commitment to become the most sustainable wine region in the world. Seven years later, they have followed through on this promise, with 99% of their current vineyard acreage certified sustainable by a third-party program. Bottles of wine made with at least 85% of these grapes are even given the Sonoma County Sustainability logo on their labels to recognize the distinction.

A word tossed around often is "biodynamic," which is the type of farming practice instituted by many Sonoma County vineyards. Biodynamic farms eliminate the use of chemicals and pesticides and focus primarily on natural materials and composts for crop growth, treating the entire land as one ecosystem with each component working together to become self-sustaining.

Biodynamic should not be confused with organic, though. While the latter focuses solely on grapes, the former may integrate guidance from the lunar calendar and astrology to determine how it will impact plants, insects, and animals used for fertilizer. No matter the method, the Sonoma County Winegrowers' Association is thriving. "It has been near perfect for growing grapes this year and a second year of a lighter crop is bringing more balance to the market which is encouraging," president Karissa Kruse said in a statement.

Sustainability Beyond Farming

Even if a fruit or vegetable isn't certifiably "sustainable," many farmers make an effort to promote conservation efforts through canning, dehydrating, and pickling.

"We do our best to preserve what we don't use," says Laren Benward, partner at Beltane Ranch. "Avoiding waste always feels right and having good stuff from our garden through the winter prevents us from purchasing as much produce or food products that have been packed and transported from different climates."

This is important for any type of consumer to keep in mind while shopping, as many out-of-season items require trucks, boats, and planes to make their way into grocery stores.

The best advice: Stock up on anything local and seasonal and preserve it so that it can be enjoyed year-round. You will be doing your part to cut back on harmful CO2 emissions, and the convenience will save you the time and money required to make that unnecessary trip to the grocery store.

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