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Hort Connections 2024: How Technology is Changing the Fresh Produce Industry

"There is a powerful opportunity to leverage data if we share it across the supply chain and turn it into information"

Australian fresh produce businesses are being encouraged to collect more data along their supply chain - from paddock to plate - and ensure it is leveraged to get the best results and value for producers.

Hort Connections 2024 heard from three experts in the industry as part of the 'How Technology is Changing the Fresh Produce Industry Panel'. One of those was Sebastian Stoof, Vice President - Head of Customer Value at TOMRA Food, whose company is in the post-harvest space sorting and grading for packers and processors.

He noted that there are 3-4 positions where fruit is individualised in the supply chain, where producers can create a unique 'fingerprint' of each item before it gets put into bins and on pallets; from when the fruit is being picked in the orchard to when it runs through the sorting machines where images are captured. Then the next time it is viewed as a single product is when it reaches the hand of the consumer who makes a buying or ultimate price decision.

"With all the players that are involved, we are not leveraging that rich data that we create along the way, to identify where the variability in the produce is coming from," Mr Stoof said. "Is it in product handling, is it in storage, is it in transport, in repacking? We usually don't know that as a supply chain participant. There is a powerful opportunity where we can leverage data if we can share it across the supply chain and turn that data into information. There is so much more to be done. We have a rich data set and we are open to sharing that with everyone, but it needs to be tailored and made fit-for-purpose. We can't just throw data around and say do with it what you want, it needs to be put in perspective."

Mr Stoof stressed the importance of understanding the variability in production because grading and sorting systems can capture at the start of the process what is packed and the quality, but when it leaves the facility, even though the shipment is traced, it does not fully identify where problems may occur. The major produce companies have tried to take more control of their fruit and vegetables right through the supply chain, but the problem is that smaller producers may not have the finances or desire to follow in their footsteps.

"Return on investment is vital," he said. "There is no investment case if you don't get returns in a reasonably short time. That applies to our (TOMRA) technology as everyone else. One variability is seasonality and we are dealing with Mother Nature. We sometimes bring the new technology, to cherries for example, and they have one great season and say we could have packed everything straight into the box, we don't need technology. Then you have a bad season and this is where you recover most of your crop that you would have otherwise had to throw away. The return on investment is not always the same."

Francesco Oliveri, Chief Information Officer at Perfection Fresh Group says his company works hard to collect data points across the supply chain, which is hard because different systems are being used and it is difficult to have a single point of view or even collect real-time data.

He noted that some problems arise because one system, say for the glass house and packing lines, for example, is great and helps a company with its own operations, but it needs to be linked across the whole supply chain.

"What market are you sending it to? Instead of doing first in, first out, you can try and estimate the shelf life of the product and see where to send it and when to ship it," he said. "Even if you can't do much with the data right now, try to collect as much information as possible because you will need that in the future to build the model that will tell you how that produce could last and what conditions are affecting that product on the supply chain."

He added that at Perfection Fresh, the company is trying to create one data platform, where regardless of what solution they are working with they can understand in real-time what is happening to the business and collect the data to prepare for what AI in the future can bring. If the data is not in order, they are not in a position to take advantage of that.

"We are focusing on a particular part of the supply chain, that is going to give us the best return in the immediate future," Mr Oliveri said. "Particularly, what is going to enable us to streamline all of our processes to gain better insight into what is happening and make more informed decisions much quicker? There are many challenges because different systems have different ways of collecting information. So, trying to bring everything together is one of the biggest challenges. It's not a particular project, but a journey or continuation and laying the foundation to achieve that. The ask is of the farmers and the industry in general to make it easier. So, when you are building technology always think about the fact that it has to be open and there has to be some data standard that allows us to integrate into different systems in a simple way. There's no silver bullet; one provider can't give us all the information we need across a supply chain."

Dr Steven Scheding is Co-Founder of Green Atlas which has a hardware platform that has multiple cameras and looks into trees for features of interest; whether that's bugs, flowers, fruit or post-harvest sanitation. It builds 3D structures of the trees to learn things like tree vigour and what needs to happen with pruning. So, as well as yield estimation, the company also helps growers with techniques such as crop thinning.

"We are focused on how to help growers produce the best quality crop," Dr Scheding said. "Typically, you pay on quality rather than on volume so it's very much about feeding data back into the business. This is where we want to give growers the simplest tools they can have that allow them to make better decisions, on a tactical basis to get the best crop at the end of the season. As we've progressed as a business, we've seen more application of that same data to more corporate needs and wants. So, what's coming down the pipe in three months, for example, how many people do I need to employ, do I need 20 ladders or 10? We also do work with packhouses on things like whether we can identify issues such as storage disorders ahead of time."

He added that when you look at an orchard on a regular basis, you can see slight differences in things like crop set and volume and the general way the crop is performing. Growers can develop different strategies that will help understand the key issue of cause and effect, because "the cause often in year one, and the effect in year two".

"What we need growers to help us, so we can help them," Dr Scheding explained. "We need to actually turn data, knowledge or insight into action because that is where real value is derived. So, more and more we are going to see things like variable rate applications. We are seeing that across the world and we as a business are focused on how to do that, but at a relatively modest cost."