As the California table grape industry moves deeper into a season that is expected to produce a record-breaking crop for the second year in a row, with demand so far keeping pace, John O’Rourke, president of RJO Produce Marketing in Fresno, CA, talked to The Produce News about some of the factors driving the industry’s success.
“The overall quality of the product that fantastic growers are producing I believe is one of the reasons you are seeing such an increase in demand,” he said. Growers “have been working very hard over the last several decades to produce great fruit, but especially over the last eight to 10 years to produce varieties that look great, that eat well, that are high-producing varieties.”
Not only are the growers benefitting “from all of the investment and hard work they have put in,” but consumers are also getting the benefit of good grapes to enjoy and customers “are benefitting from the opportunity to offer such premium product” to the consumers.
It is “an exciting time in the grape industry” with “so many different varieties and so many new varieties” available in the market, O’Rourke said.
RJO Produce has developed a proprietary fruit scoring system and a proprietary, patent-pending, mobile software application that enables RJO inspectors to score inspections in the field and share those scores in real time with customers. The company calls the system “Bird Dog Quality Scores,” and it enables inspectors to not only score individual lots but to make quantifiable comparisons and track trends.
“Our field research and what we are seeing out there with our Bird Dog Quality Scores “ confirms the overall quality of the grape produced by California shippers, O’Rourke said. “Coming off such a strong year last year, there is a lot of excitement in terms of the quality of the product being offered to the consumer. It is just outstanding.”
Not every lot, of course, is of equally outstanding quality, and there are many reasons for that, one of which is the simple fact that with all of the new varieties growers are dealing with, they are also going through a learning process, O’Rourke explained.
Each variety has its own personality, and “the vines have their own personalities based on the soil and the rootstock and how they are grown.” Because of that, being able to “navigate through those waters” is “extremely critical.” Every year “offers more challenges” in how to grow the fruit, how to harvest it, and how to get it to the marketplace, he said. “So we are very excited to have the opportunity to deliver high-quality fruit for our customers.” The Bird Dog Quality Scores system facilitates that process.
Customers “can see exactly how the commodities are trending, and they have a score, real time. Our bird dogs are out in the field on a daily basis, and our customers have the ability to have a score right there in front of them 3,000 miles away. That accurate timely information helps them to handle their business, I think, in a much more efficient, more knowledgeable manner,” he said.
“We can adjust the scoring system and customize it to any customer’s wishes, so it reflects those customers’ specifications and what they are looking for,” he said. “It allows them to see trends and see what is happening and get a real clear understanding of the marketplace, especially given the abundant amount of varieties that are available, so it is a great tool. We are excited that we can use technology, along with our field-based team, and put our customers in a position where they can leverage field knowledge,” helping them to make “timely, accurate decisions for their business.”
One of the challenges in the industry is the difficulty in managing the growing number of pack styles and related information, O’Rourke explained. “It is difficult enough to grow fantastic premium fruit. It gets more difficult when you’ve got to make sure it’s in the right bag with the right lettering in the right box with the right information, the right traceability number, in the proper slot in the cold storage, and then make sure it gets from that proper slot in the cold storage to the proper truck.”
With so many steps to go through “along the way from the vine to the truck,” there are many things that can go wrong,” he said. The fruit could, for example, wind up in the wrong bag or have the wrong PLU or the wrong variety marked on the carton. “Things like that do happen,” and RJO’s bird dogs pride themselves in minimizing those problems by catching such mistakes before the fruit is loaded on the truck.
“One of the things that our [inspectors] do” is to make sure that what goes on a customer’s truck “meets our customers specifications,” he said. Not only must it be the right fruit of the right quality but it must be “what they are asking for” in terms of specific packaging as well.