harvest; packaging

Marketing tips: Understand the basic functions of fresh produce packaging

Packaging is expensive, but it’s important if you are to achieve top prices for your fresh produce.

The cost of packaging can be frightening, so some farmers turn to cheaper alternatives, such as second-hand containers. Like the Eastern Cape farmer who does the rounds of all the fruit and veg shops in one of the smaller markets every afternoon, picking up (free) empty cartons.

Then he packs his vegetables for market and delivers them the next morning – very pleased with himself for keeping costs down. But he doesn’t realise he’s become something of a joke at the market because he never gets top prices; in fact, he receives less because of his poor presentation in containers that used to belong to other farmers.

If you’re serious about marketing your fresh fruit or vegetables, you have no option other than to do so properly. It’s pointless to spend all your money in production only to throw it away by using cheap packaging.

Packaging has four main functions in fresh produce marketing. Perform them correctly and you’ll reap the rewards. When you do your sums, you’ll see that packaging was not as expensive as you thought it would be, and that, in fact, it helped you to get better prices.

The following are the 4 basics of good packaging.


Good packaging is designed to protect the product.

Fresh produce is sensitive to bad handling and storage, so it must get all the protection it can from the packaging. We use corrugated cartons most often and you can discuss, with your rep or another knowledgeable person, which is best for your products.

Corrugated board is flexible and versatile. It can be made in a wide range of thicknesses and strengths – all at a cost. You could spend a fortune making a super-strong carton, way beyond the normal needs of the product. Or you could “save money” by reducing the thickness of the board, paper strength and fluting only to find you have endless problems with damaged products, collapsed cartons and reduced prices.

The key is to find a balance between protective strength, carton cost and product value. If you’re marketing strawberries you need a strong, attractive container costing more than most others. But you are offering a product that usually gets higher prices, so the two balance each other out.

Cabbage, on the other hand, is a relatively low-value, large, robust product. It goes into a cheap nylon bag that does the job nevertheless! Imagine packing 8 or 10 cabbages into a corrugated carton costing a great deal more than a nylon bag, simply because it needs to be strong enough to carry the weight of the cabbage. The ratio between packaging cost and potential product value simply doesn’t make sense.

Packaging, linked to careful handling of fruit and vegetables, ensures top prices. The more fruit and vegetables are handled the more they will bruise and eventually lose value. Good packaging ensures damage is kept to a minimum.

You could pack your products in “cotton wool” inside a super-strong container, but you couldn’t justify the cost by the price you get. Careful handling in a decent container, with the products firmly packed (not squeezed in) will go a long way towards achieving the same result, at a much lower cost.


Imagine you had no packaging and everything was packed loose into containers – how would you move and control your products? Even in the earliest times farmers carried their products to market in sacks or large baskets on the back of donkeys or horses.

Things are much better today. By putting your products into a carton or bag you are able to manage them. You can count how much you’ve got and that gives you control. And if you count all the units you packed from a field, you can establish what your yield per hectare was. This will help you to cost the crop and find out whether or not you made money.

Because you know quantities and packaging sizes, you can direct your products to the right customers. Individual customers prefer different packs and will pay accordingly, thereby maximising your returns. The packaging has played an important part in giving your customers what they want – and that’s good marketing!


The other major benefit of packaging is that you can transport your products, effectively and safely, to anywhere in the world. A pallet holds a certain number of containers.

Also read: Transporting fresh produce

If you multiply this number by the number of full pallets you have, you will know exactly how many containers you’ve got to transport. Cartons and pallets are designed to specific sizes that will fit into transport containers, ships, aeroplanes and trucks translating into better, cost-effective transport.

The rule still applies, even if you don’t use pallets; correct packaging always allows you to transport your products effectively.


How you present (grade and pack) your products remains the most important activity if you are to achieve top prices. But good packaging, combined with good branding, helps to lift your product to the next level.

I’ve spoken to hundreds of successful farmers, market agents and buyers all over the country: They all agree that good packaging is a powerful tool in marketing fresh produce.

Also read: Sorting, washing, grading and packing your fresh produce

You start with a good-quality container, pack good-quality products into it, and then add colour and information on the container to attract the buyer’s eye. Next time you go to the market, look at the tremendous range of containers, colours, brands and other graphics all saying, “buy me!”.
The fruit section is alive with different brands and many colours. The potato section is ablaze with multi-coloured potato pockets stacked on pallets.
Farmers all compete with one another and, apart from good quality they have to present their products in protective, attractive packaging. Next time you’re at the market, ask your market agent or the buyers which farmers get the best prices and why. Listen to what they say, then go home and do what those farmers did.

You’ve got the right packaging; make sure you put the right products in it!

  • This article was written by Michael Cordes and first appeared in Farming SA.

share this