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A note on "imperfect produce", a growers perspective...

Posted 11/7/2016 9:17am by Aaron Lichtenberg.

Although we're a long way from the major shifts in grocery retailing seen at the turn of the 19th century, and then further into the 1950's and beyond, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the sincere difference between the emerging “supermarkets” of the post-WWII era and today's major grocery chains. The domination, and continued consolidation, of major supermarket chains in the US is, by any measure, an oligopoly. This has had deep and reverberating effects on our population, culture, and specifically how we consume our general “everyday needs”

How this plays into my business as a small produce farmer is multifaceted and complicated, to say the least, and certainly contains enough fodder for a graduate dissertation in economics. However, suffice to say, I'd like to cover just a couple of points that have come to my mind often regarding what may be, albeit debatable, the three most prominent factors on how people consume fresh produce today: price, quality, & service.

I'll address price first, as I feel it may be more concrete, but no less complicated than the latter two. The expectation of the modern consumer for cheap food is one that, I feel, stems from the same time period stated above in the opening paragraph. That epoch revealed drastic changes in production methods, with distribution models shifting just as rapidly, built on the back of the burgeoning industry's reliance on cheap production of fossil fuels and all their constituent counterparts.

These two main sectors, production & distribution, likely had, and still has, the largest influence on the price of goods & food in America. Because of our system of economics this seemed to clearly spell out the inevitable regarding prices: a “race to the bottom”**. Some may argue that this outcome was a desired and positive change. However, it cannot be ignored that with a “race to the bottom” mentality on the price of goods, that choice has inevitable consequences on how those goods are produced, and what qualities those goods have and offer to our society.

Which neatly leads me to quality. I feel this consideration contains not only the subjective opinions of an individual toward a specific product, but also the landscape from which that product exists. This exercise could take us in unlimited directions even to include considerations of what economists call externalities.

However, while it is fascinating to explore the differences between your grandparents' supermarket offerings and today's, this measure of “quality” I feel can be better interpreted as a “service”. It is quite clear that the diversity in products that we can choose from today, at any time of the calendar year, is staggering. It could also be said that, “some choice is good, unlimited choice will inevitably lead to failed expectations”. So let's put aside the “service” aspect considered within quality and just consider trying to address the opinions behind “quality”.

Although this may be a more difficult point to address while analyzing “quality”, I feel it just may be the most significant factor when determining outcomes of perception toward a product. I think those with marketing degrees may agree with me on that assertion. Suffice to say that the appearance vs. actual qualities of a product may just have one of the most significant, and potentially divergent, influences on a consumer's choice.

Let's take an apple for an example. A “Red Delicious” apple is no doubt one of the most ubiquitous examples of what has driven consumer expectation towards apples that I can think of. It's round, red shape contains the quintessential ideal that has been stamped into nearly everyone's mind as to what an apple “should” be. It doesn't matter that it's flavor is uninteresting and bland; it ships well, resists bruising and many marketing dollars have been put behind its preeminence in the marketplace.

A customer came up to me at the last farmers market and asked me about organic apples. Although I told him I knew very little about being an orchardist, let alone in organic production, I did share the small amount that I had learned from another grower of organic apples. There are a plethora of varietal choices in apples, all with different complex flavor profiles and even natural resistance to different fungi and disease pressures. Although “organic” apples do exist, many are still sprayed to reduce the occurrence of splotches and specks that consumers plain expect to absent on an apple they'll consume...regardless of whether it actually affects eating quality or say nothing of the fact that if an apple (or any fruit/vegetable) is bruised, or has a small amount of “rot” on it, it is often times still perfectly edible!

The reality seems to be that, in this country for sure, we consumers have been practically “socially engineered” to expect perfect looking produce and products: no dents, no dings and it'd better be cheaper than the next place. Our expectation is now that we'll be able to go to a single location, with innumerable, constantly changing, but consistent choices. Only then to pick from a perceptibly “perfect” looking selection of products, and pay the lowest possible price for those goods. All while not having to consider all the factors and/or consequences in creating that landscape of choice we are bumbling about within to pick out or dinner choices.

As long as we continue these societal expectations, I feel we'll continue to proliferate oligopolies in the marketplaces of all of our goods and services in what we determine as needs in managing our daily lives. As long as we continue to demand “perfect” looking produce, for the “cheapest” possible price, within a constant array and diversity of products, anytime of the calendar year, we'll have to accept the consequences of that circumstance.

We'll have to accept a global system of massive mono-cultures and mass-production systems to produce those products. These systems have to rely often on using destructive production methods that affect our health, and are largely dependent on pesticides and palliative measures that, in turn, cause environmental harm, and further which are completely dependent on the extraction-based economy of our modern distribution system.

We as consumers are the only real ones that have the power to affect this reality in our culture and society. The above asserted dominant expectation toward perfect, inexpensive and unlimited choice is a fallacy that is wreaking havoc on our society:

Price= The monetary value that one pays for a product

Quality= The perceived value, relating to personal expectation, of a given product to a consumer

Service= The manner in which the product is offered or made available to a consumer

Pick can't have 'em all




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