One crisp fall morning, I was summoned by the crackle of the ranch radio to the persimmon patch.
Uncle Jack, may he rest in peace, was on a rant. It wasn’t about the persimmons on the trees or in the picking trays or in the packed boxes. No, the next 30 minutes were spent around the cull bin and how we were throwing money away. You see, I was in charge of selling the peddlers. I also sold the value-oriented wholesalers of Mexico and Central America. When it came to “sell it or smell it” time, that was my gig. Surely one of those markets would take these imperfect products. After all, there was always some peddler in an Econoline van with little English and even less money, but, who would take anything at the right price.
I’ve thought a lot about quality standards over the years. How did we evolve from “field run” to graded produce? Back in the days of the terminal market auctions, the buyers voted quality with their bids. Today, one talks with jobbers, store-level produce personnel or works the table at a consumer direct swap meet or farmers market. Some stuff sells fast, some sells slower and some doesn’t sell. Watching a grocer cull a display is both an enlightening and humbling experience.
Farmers figure out which characteristics are important, which are unimportant and which are problematic. A green Thompson seedless grape is greatly preferred over an amber one. Why? It doesn’t matter. What is deemed quality is not always logical, but the customer is always right. If the customer won’t buy it, it’s cheaper to throw it away in the field than throw it away at final destination. For farmers who lacked the ability or discipline to throw it away in the field, USDA grade standards and marketing orders were created to save them from themselves. Over time, growers have learned that harvesting, processing, packing and transporting produce with characteristics consumers are reluctant to buy is not a good business model.
Retailers specializing in deals on odd grade or surplus produce are not new.
Enter, out of nowhere, the food waste crowd. They are most alarmed at this business-as-usual. The climate is changing. People are hungry. This waste of resources must be stopped.
I really don’t know where the food waste people came from. Cause de jour of the slacktivists? No. At last year’s Amsterdam Produce Show, there were several food waste presentations. These are some very scholarly people doing some serious thinking. My impression is the environmental impact from wasteful resource use drive them more than the social impact of hunger. The food waste crowd is more Captain Planet than Mother Teresa. Friend or foe? Some of the studies come from sketchy sources from the environmental activist world. Be careful.
My daughter signed up for a produce delivery service that sells small, off-grade and surplus produce. Prices were low, but after shipping and “the box fee,” she bought 9 pounds of produce for $15. A feature on the website order page informed her how much carbon and water were saved. A branded, proprietary melon was included. I wonder if the grower paid marketing and technology fees on that. An organic mini seedless watermelon sold as “surplus” was 30 percent of the cheapest ad in California.
Retailers specializing in deals on odd grade or surplus produce are not new. Where I live, Grocery Outlet and the 99 Cent Only store have at least two-dozen produce items, largely last-minute deals. It is more about price than spec. Maybe their produce buyers should be nominated for Nobel Peace Prizes? In fact, I know one retailer with two small 5,000-square-foot stores that sell largely rejected produce. Clamshells of berries with some decay are sold at 2 or 3 for a dollar. Word is they do $250,000 a week.
I think back to Uncle Jack’s time and selling the off product. Cull persimmons in a utility-grade volume fill were the tip of the iceberg. Selling the last picked grapes on the vine to someone who claimed they were packing for Tijuana, when, in reality, these grapes moved through a broker to a wholesaler who was selling them to chain stores.
The most extreme thing Uncle Jack ever did was with organic. The weakest blocks of grapes were transitioned to organic, because, he reasoned, those hippies would eat anything as long as it was organic. If Uncle Jack were still with us, and one of these ugly produce outfits approached him to ask, “What do you do with the produce you don’t sell?” Jack would smile… and chat… and pick his brain, then call me for a meeting around the cull bin.
John Pandol is director of special projects at Pandol Brothers. His expertise is turning crops into value. A trade-show junkie and a serial store checker, he spends 120-plus days on the road observing the reality of the produce trade — he freely shares these observations in print, online and in public forums. Pandol finds euphoria in all “food experiences.”