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Marketing tips: Essential steps to better fresh produce prices

On a world scale, up to 33% of all perfectly good fresh produce is thrown away after harvesting. Michael Cordes discusses harvesting, handling and transport.

Many farmers make the mistake of thinking that marketing fresh produce is far removed from their farming activities. They argue that they have their hands full just producing crops, and anyway, they think, marketing is something best left to others on some distant market or in a far-away store. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are fantastic products but they have one major problem – they don’t last forever. You can do what you like but a fruit or vegetable will eventually “die”. Everyone in the fresh produce business faces the same challenge: how to get the product from the farm to the consumer in the shortest possible time, at the lowest cost and in the best condition.

On a world scale, up to 33% (depending on the country) of all perfectly good fresh produce is thrown away after harvesting because of bad handling and storage. That’s a lot of good, wholesome food going to waste.

Let’s consider 3 basic steps which every farmer should get right if he wants to market his fruit successfully.

HARVESTING

The activity of harvesting, whether it is picking a fruit, cutting a cabbage or lifting potatoes, is the same for all products. It has to be done carefully because it’s the first step in the marketing process.

Mess it up at this stage and you’ll have problems all along the marketing chain – most importantly at the end, with the consumer, who doesn’t want to waste money on bruised or inferior products.

All fresh produce bruises – some more than others – and they all can be damaged if not handled correctly. A person harvesting any crop should have been trained to do it properly.

Depending on the crop, he or she may have to select only the mature, ripe fruit; and this is a very important function.

If immature (not fully developed) fruit is collected, it will show later, when the immature fruit starts to shrivel instead of developing good colour like the rest of the fruit in the container.

Pickers shouldn’t have long fingernails which can easily damage the fruit. When holding the fruit to pick it, their grip should be gentle, with the soft part of the hand or fingers, not squeezed by the fingertips. Once the fruit has been picked, it shouldn’t be dropped into the picking bag or lug box but placed in it as gently as possible.

Harvesting is where a farmer can start developing a “culture of care” among his workers to ensure they always handle every product like a baby! It will take time and patience but it can be done, and it is well worth the effort when you see your prices moving ahead of other farmers because of the quality of your products.

HANDLING

  • Good handling starts with harvesting and, done correctly, it will contribute directly to improved prices on the market.
  • The problem with bad handling (which causes bruising) is that the person doing it doesn’t see the damage; it only appears later, on the market or in the store.
  • By then it will be too late because the buyer will have seen what he’s lost in the store and next time he’ll buy somebody else’s fruit.
  • You’re losing money because you cannot get that better price the “good” farmers are realising.

Let’s do a simple sum:

You send 100 single-layer trays of peaches per week to the market. That’s 400 trays a month. The average price on the market for that count (quantity) and variety is R30 per tray; and R30 x 400 = R12 000 per month.

If, after the first week, the buyers no longer ask for your fruit because they picked up too much bruising in their shops and prices had to be reduced to sell the peaches. They even had to throw away some peaches that were more badly bruised than others.

Let’s go back to our simple sum:

Week 1 = 100 x R30 = R3 000
Weeks 2, 3 & 4 = 300 x R20 = R6 000 (I’m being generous at R20, it would probably be lower than that.)
Total for the month = R9 000! You’ve just thrown away R3 000.

I don’t know any farmer who’s so rich that he can afford to throw away R3 000 a month!

The process of good handling starts with harvesting but must be continued all the way to the market floor. Hopefully, when the fruit is sold, the buyer will also continue the process into his store.

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

TRANSPORT

After harvesting, the fruit has to be taken to a pack house or somewhere else to be sorted, graded and packed. On most farms, the road from orchard or field to the pack house is usually rough and in bad condition.

This will cause the tractor and trailer or bakkie carrying the fruit to bump along… and every time it bumps there’s more damage to the fruit, which will only be seen days later in the store!

I know road maintenance is a low priority on most farms, but it’s important to try to keep the farm roads at least halfway decent. The tractor or bakkie driver has to be taught that this isn’t a practice track for Formula 1 racing; it’s a farm road over which you’re sending a precious cargo, so he must drive carefully.

This principle applies in every situation where fruit is being moved from A to B. It could be as simple as moving a few cartons across the pack house floor or loading a large truck for the market.

No matter which it is – always handle with care!

Also read: Marketing tips: The fresh produce supply chain

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

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