Cull to Action

John PandolOne 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.”