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AMS calls for eligible vendors to supply new school pilot program

WASHINGTON — The Agricultural Marketing Service is looking for vendors for a new pilot program to be launched in January that will test buying fresh and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables with entitlement dollars for schools in eight states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week.

During an hour-long conference call, USDA staff fielded questions from potential vendors and school purchasers on the new pilot program authorized under the 2014 farm bill that will permit states to use USDA entitlement dollars to buy unprocessed fruits and vegetables, including fresh-cut sliced apples, baby carrots and shredded lettuce.

The goal of the program is for schools to develop additional opportunities to buy fruits and vegetables by tapping commercial distribution channels with entitlement funds. Schools in the pilot states will be able to continue purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables through the DOD Fresh program.

USDA will announce the eight states at the end of the year, but the department is already accepting applications for “eligible vendors” from which states and schools can procure products, said Nate Sudbeck, AMS contract specialist.

State applications are due Sept. 30, and AMS anticipates announcing the eight states located in specific regions around the country by the end of the year, giving the green light for vendors to start shipping products in January.

Vendors will need to demonstrate they have a traceability system that ensures compliance with the 100 percent domestic origin requirement. Companies cannot commingle foreign with domestic product to participate, he said.

Companies will need to certify they are maintaining a food-safety program that meets Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling practices, and AMS will be checking vendors to make sure they meet the requirements before awarding procurement.

Several participants during the Thursday conference call questioned how states will know whether vendors are still GAP certified during the length of the pilot. USDA officials explained the eligible vendor list is good for one year, after which companies will have to resubmit their application and GAP certificates to continue with the program.

USDA is relying on audits conducted by the AMS Specialty Crop Inspection Division or by a certification body benchmarked by the Global Food Safety Initiative to demonstrate vendors meet food-safety requirements.

Fresh cut produce suppliers are mandated to follow a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based food-safety system, including a microbiological testing program. When asked whether testing results would be submitted to the department, a USDA official said that test results would not be shared with the government and that inspectors will verify only there is a testing program in place.

All eligible vendors also must have food defense plans in place.

States or schools that contract with eligible vendors and use entitlement funds for the value of the unprocessed fruits and vegetables are required to report monthly to USDA on the quantity and cost of each type of fruit of vegetable.

Eligible vendors do not have to be located in the participating state to gain access to the new marketing opportunity, Sudbeck explained, and any specific arrangements about sourcing with the schools, such as a preference for locally grown, will be left to the contracting parties, not USDA.

Responding to a question about the length of the pilot, USDA officials pointed out the 2014 farm bill did not specify an end date, and they anticipate the states selected for the initial pilot will operate for the duration, unless a state drops out.  

For more information about the pilot, contact: Nate Sudbeck at 202-720-3052, Nate.Sudbeck@ams.usda.gov.

Citrus greening spreads to new areas of Texas

The Texas citrus industry is currently combating the destructive disease known as citrus greening, as the disease has taken a stronghold in both commercial and residential citrus plants in the Rio Grande Valley. Hidalgo, Cameron and Harris counties are under quarantine for citrus greening, which is primarily a disease of the tree but it can also have a devastating effect on the crop itself. The fruit from infected trees poses no risk to human health.

Citrus greening was first detected in Texas in January 2012. A small number of trees were found to be infected with the disease. In 2014, the nature and prevalence of citrus greening disease changed, with the discovery of 430 infected trees in commercial groves and 207 infected trees in residential backyards.

“The question weighing heavily on the minds of growers and many others in South Texas is whether Texas can avoid a catastrophic situation for our citrus industry, which wasn’t the case for our eastern neighbors in Florida,” Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, said in a press release.

Recent detections are not only being found in more commercial groves and residential areas, but some areas have a large number of infected trees, with more than 50 trees testing positive for the disease in a single block of citrus. The area most infected by the disease is located in the mid-valley region.

“It is simply too early to know how the situation will unfold,” Prewett said in the release. “However, we know that all Texans, from commercial growers to nursery owners to homeowners, must continue to be aggressive in their efforts to slow the spread of the disease.”

The state legislature established the Texas Citrus Pest & Disease Management Corp. to help fight citrus greening in Texas. CPDMC has developed a set of best management practices for controlling the Asian citrus psyllid, the pest that infects citrus trees and causes citrus greening.

Additionally, the Texas Department of Agriculture has issued regulations requiring all citrus trees in the 10 county citrus zone to be produced in an enclosed, certified structure. This will help prevent the disease from entering and infecting nursery plants.

Texas Citrus Mutual and the Texas Citrus Pest & Disease Management Corporation are working with Rio Grande Valley residents, commercial producers and sellers to aggressively combat citrus greening through the following practices: integrated pest management, including the use of pesticides and bio-control agents; reduction of citrus greening bacteria, which requires removing infected trees; and working with growers and homeowners to plant citrus nursery stock that is free of citrus greening and other diseases.

Instacart raises bar on home delivery

Like many new companies in this era of technology, the needs of the owners led to the launching of Instacart, an online grocery shopping and delivery service.

“It was a problem that we personally had that we wanted to solve,” said Max Mullen, a co-owner of Instacart. “We wanted to get high-quality groceries and have them delivered quickly, and nobody was doing that.”

He and a couple of partners launched Instacart in July 2012 in the San Francisco market and since then have expanded it to 12 metropolitan centers across the United States. Mullen said five new metropolitan areas will be opened by the end of 2014 and he expects exponential growth in 2015, with most major population centers being served by the end of next year.

Mullen said other online grocery companies have not survived for various reasons that Instacart has been designed to avoid. For example, he remembers the famous flameout of Webvan, which was also launched in the San Francisco Bay area, and said that company was “extremely costly to run from an infrastructure perspective. And it was over-leveraged.”

Webvan could not support that infrastructure as it searched for customers and it died a spectacular death.

Personal-ShoppersPersonal shoppers on their way to delivering an order. Produce is included in 95 percent of all orders and makes up about 35-40 percent of total orders.Instacart has a simple model built on partnering with existing retail grocery stores and offering very fast delivery. Using the company’s technologically advanced software either on a computer or a smart phone, a customer can order groceries, including fresh produce, and often receive that order within an hour. In fact, if certain geographic criteria are met when the order is placed, Instacart guarantees the delivery within an hour.

Mullen said the company is targeting busy moms as well as urban professionals. He said both groups are challenged for time and appreciate having their high-quality groceries delivered the same day they order them. It is the speed of delivery that he believes will help Instacart survive as giants such as amazon.com and Google enter the home delivery grocery space.

Instacart can make good on its delivery guarantees because it has shoppers in stores throughout the metropolitan area waiting for orders to appear via their own smart phones. Instacart partners with specific independent retailers and chains in each market area. Often the personal shopper is already working on another order when the new order is placed. The items are bought via a previously established account and delivered quickly.

Mullen said the delivery can happen so quickly that a mom making a meal and missing an ingredient can place the order and have it delivered while still making that dish.

For orders under a $35 ring, the delivery charge is $5.99, while for orders above that threshold the charge drops to $3.99 per order. In addition, most customers tip the delivery person.

Mullen said the model works financially for several reasons.

First, the retailers that are involved share the cost of the service. The benefit to that store is that it often gets access to new customers.

For example, in San Francisco, Rainbow Grocery is a very popular independent grocery co-op, but its single location makes it difficult for consumers who live several miles away to frequent the place. With Instacart, they now have access to the high-quality produce and other items for which the retailer is noted.

Mullen said that as Instacart moves into a new metropolitan area it partners with popular retailers with high-quality products that many consumers want access to. This gives the service instant credibility and instant access to customers.

Other retailers that are currently serviced by Instacart include Whole Foods, Costco, Kroger and many smaller chains throughout the country. As it opens new markets, Mullen said its rate of growth in each market is increasingly faster.

Many items on the Instacart website are sold to the consumer at the exact same price that is available in the store, but Mullen said some retailers do adjust their pricing both up and down. They might charge more for some items and make others available at a lower cost as a special promotion for online shoppers.

When Mullen and his partners launched Instacart, they thought fresh produce, like other items in the store, would be on the average consumer’s shopping list, but Mullen said its popularity has been a bit surprising.

“Produce is on 95 percent of our orders and makes up about 35-40 percent of the total orders,” he said.

The company does train its shoppers on picking top-quality produce, including such intricacies as how soon an avocado will be ripe. Mullen said customers do have the option to buy produce in various stages of ripeness so the personal shoppers need to be able to accommodate those requests.

“It is our biggest selling category, so we need to get it right,” he said.

He said the training module includes written material, an online video and in-person training.

The top sellers in the produce department for Instacart mirror the top sellers for any brick-and-mortar store. Bananas are No. 1, with other top-10 categories being berries, packaged salads, avocados, citrus, onions and grapes. Overall, fresh fruit is a better seller than fresh vegetables.

The company’s personal shoppers are typically students or stay-at-home moms looking for extra income. Shoppers are paid based on their number of deliveries in a given time frame, so a quicker shopper can make more money. While many are part-time, Mullen said there are some who do it all day long as their main source of income.

When the company first launched, Mullen said the initial users were from higher-income levels, but the low cost of delivery and access to the same price in the stores has created customers from every price range. What they have most in common is lack of time.

In each metropolitan area that it enters, Instacart maps its service area carefully so that the customers can be reached efficiently and quickly.

For example while the East Bay in the San Francisco area is covered by Instacart, my community on the east side of the Oakland/Berkeley Hills area does not yet have coverage, though Mullen said it should open up soon.

The current markets that are covered by Instacart are Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco Bay area, San Jose, Seattle and Washington, DC.

 

Stellar Distributing exec details short season

California's devastating drought plus higher than normal summer temperatures is shrinking the window for profitable produce sales in August and September, according to Kurt Cappelluti, partner in Stellar Distributing in Madera, CA, one of the Central Valley's major distributors of fresh kiwis, figs, pomegranates, persimmons and apricots. But steps can be taken to ensure volume and profitability.

"We knew that nature's timetable had changed when our kiwis began to ripen about two weeks ahead of their usual dates," Cappelluti said in a company press release. "And now we're seeing the same phenomenon in fruit that is next on the schedule."

He said his conversations with growers and shippers of the other tree fruits that Stellar does not handle, such as peaches, plums, nectarines and table grapes are confirming that those commodities are ripening earlier as well. Stellar does offer natural Thompson seedless table grapes, opening earlier this year than Cappelluti can remember, and they are available now.

To keep from missing traditional sales and profit opportunities, and avoid pile-ups of volumes beyond sales capacities he suggested earlier and extended ordering and promotion

For example, to help wholesalers and retailers get a jump on back-to-school promotions Stellar has revived its popular 1990s Kiwi Kids pack. It features either three six or 13 medium-sized kiwis in a handy plastic pouch that displays the fruit well, promotes easy selection by consumers and provides convenient storage when the fruit goes home.

"We think the "kids" designation encourages retail shoppers to think of upcoming school days," Cappelluti said in the release. "And the built-in handle of the pouch might ring a bell for them about carrying school lunches."

The other extremely noticeable area of early ripening has been in fresh figs. Stellar ships from 3,000 acres of drip-irrigated fig trees in the Madera area and another 3,000 acres of the earliest ripening figs from Southern California. Fig varieties include Mission, Kadota, Brown Turkey, Calimyrna, Sierra and the exciting later addition to the team, the Tiger fig.

Riveridge continues 2013 automated vacuum harvester test

This fall Riveridge Produce Marketing, Inc., based in Sparta, MI, will continue a successful vacuum apple harvester test launched in the 2103 season.

An Aug. 21 company press release indicated that the pilot test last season ran for six-weeks. This showed “significant promise in several areas… and the company has plans to expand its use of the equipment again this fall.”

“Basically what we wanted to see last year was how well the vacuum harvest machinery handled the fruit from the picker into bin-filler, as the first test of whether the system was a viable option for us,” said Justin Finkler, Riveridge operations manager.  “We were very pleased with the results of the bruising trials.”

2014-8-22-vacuum-harvesterRiveridge Produce Marketing is continuing experimental tests on this apple harvester after highly successful pilot program in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Riveridge Produce Marketing, Inc.) The press release noted that Riveridge, a vertically-integrated grower/packer/shipper, worked with researchers from Michigan State University to evaluate the quality of hand-picked apples compared to apples picked and fed into the vacuum harvesting tube.

The apple harvesting system, manufactured by Phil Brown Welding, Inc., of Conklin, MI, has three key components.  The first is a picking platform that carries four workers on a hydraulic platform that’s raised and lowered as needed, with two workers on each side of the platform.  It was self-propelled by a driverless tractor.

The second component is the vacuum harvesting equipment itself, which resembles the traditional sash-supported pails used by professional harvesters, except that the bottom of the “pail” is a fully-padded vacuum hose that continually, gently conveys the apples into a bin.  Consequently, apples are still picked by hand, but conveyed by the vacuum equipment.

A third component of the system lowers the filled bin of apples into the aisle, where a box hauler removes it from the orchard, and replaces it with an empty bin located at the bottom end of the workers’ vacuum tubes.  A fifth worker monitors these processes.

Riveridge’s test of the vacuum harvester found significant benefits in several areas:

* Improved worker efficiency, by not moving ladders and walking to the bin;

* Ergonomic benefits and improved safety for workers;

* Improved worker productivity and quality by reducing physical fatigue;

* 24-hour harvesting capability under LED lighting; and

* Reduced bruising of the apples.

According to Riveridge’s President, Don Armock, “While we plan additional tests this year, we believe the vacuum harvesting aid has potential to help address our labor issues and bring better quality fruit to harvest.

“We did side-by-side trials with people on ladders, harvesting the same blocks containing the same varieties on the same day.  We wanted a true apples-to-apples comparison of hand-picked fruit to machine-picked fruit,” Armock said.

Perhaps Riveridge’s most significant finding in 2013 was that the vacuum harvester handled the apples better than some of its best workers did.  While it was used on only about five percent of Riveridge’s land, data showed that bruising was less frequent when the vacuum aid was used, Armock said in the press release.

“We believe that our future includes harvest-assist machinery, quite possibly this system,” Armock said.  “Following some upgrades made over the winter, our team is eager to put the machinery to use again with another big crop.”

During the pilot test, conventional harvesters picked fruit from the ground as high up as they could reach.  The four workers on the vacuum harvesting platform picked the tops of the trees.

“Anytime you can take the ladder out of the equation it’s better on bruising, faster for the workers and better on safety,” Finkler said.  “In some of the trials we tried to use the vacuum harvester to do it all.  But the worker on the ground is hard to beat for efficiency.

“Having our hand-harvesting crew pick only what they could reach, and letting the machine pick the rest, probably increased the speed of our ground crew 15 to 20 percent,” Finkler said.  “It was a trial and we learned as we went.”

“Adequate labor in the orchard at harvest continues to be a challenge for us and most other apple growers,” Armock said.  “This kind of harvest aid allows us to more fully use our labor pool.  The less physical nature of using the vacuum-harvester to pick apples also means we’re more likely to be able to recruit domestic laborers.”

“We believe new technology and better working conditions, such as those enabled by harvest aid systems, will help us further become the employer of choice to attract the best workers in our area,” Armock concluded.

The vacuum harvester and accompanying automated picking platform are currently one-of-a-kind.  They were invented, patented and fine-tuned over the last several years by Phil Brown Welding, Inc., at the direction of the “DBR team” of apple grower Chuck Dietrich, machinist Phil Brown, and grower Mike Rasch.

With another 32 million bushel crop on the trees, Riveridge plans to test the efficiency of the vacuum harvester again this year.

Over the winter, DBR modified the equipment to speed up efficiency and allow better maneuvering in the orchard by removing tractor and adopting a self-propelled platform.

These changes plus last year’s experience allows Riveridge to begin paying workers the more customary piece rate rather than hourly wages, Finkler said. 

The vacuum-harvest aid requires trees that have been planted and trained to about 12 feet tall in a two-plane system.  Most Michigan orchards planted in the last decade have been trained to these newer spindle or axis systems.

Michigan is the nation’s third-largest apple producing state, and nearly 60 percent of the state’s apples are grown on or near Fruit Ridge, which runs through Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties.  Riveridge Produce, Inc., sells more than one-third of Michigan’s fresh apple crop in up to 26 states and a dozen foreign countries.  The company is 25 years old this fall.