The potato supply chain, with its numerous stages on the journey from seed via processing to final customer, has not always been the most transparent. With relations between growers and processors occasionally strained, the sector has found it harder than most to build up trust and confidence throughout the chain.
To address the problem, and in particular the thorny issues of delivery rejections and payment reductions, the NFU Potato Forum last month published a report, entitled Bridging the Gap, which looked at how relations can be improved in what is a vital area of the British fresh produce sector.
Informed by member feedback, the Potato Forum wrote to over 30 packers and processors to highlight concerns over collaboration and communication, following this up with face-to-face meetings. “The discussions were very constructive and we’ve been pleased with the positive way many packers and processors have engaged with the NFU on this subject,” says Potato Forum chairman Alex Godfrey. “These meetings have been valuable in building a better understanding of the customers’ processes and challenges. In many cases, the NFU has been able to represent members’ concerns and open a constructive dialogue from which we can build more collaborative relationships.”
The discussions focused on two particular areas: rejections, whereby a load delivered to a customer’s site is deemed unacceptable by quality control (QC) and sent elsewhere or returned to farm at the grower’s expense; and deductions, where a load is accepted by QC and packed or processed, but a proportion is picked off or graded out by the customer. The weight of this material is then deducted from the delivery weight in arriving at the payment weight.
It emerged in the NFU’s enquiries that there was considerable variation in approaches to communicating with growers and sharing data, with examples of good practice identified.
The NFU report offers advice for both growers and packers/processors for how to keep relations in optimal health going forward. For growers, it advises asking for the information they need to improve their business, visiting customers at least once a season to see their product handled, improving communication with customers, being honest about the quality of potatoes (e.g. flagging up if a load comes from a headland) and taking regular samples both off the field and out of store to know the crop quality. Also requesting guidance from customers on quality assessment parameters.
The NFU says packers and processors need to make a step change to increase the level of information shared with growers, including investment in technologies that improve information gathering. It also wants them to strive to provide full quality data corresponding to the payment data as soon as possible, and ideally within 24 hours of assessment. Where delays are inevitable, they should share QC data in the interim to allow growers to take short-term action to improve load quality if required.
Its other advice for packers and processors includes providing training for growers where on-farm sampling is required, withholding rejection decisions where only one sample is taken for QC assessment, and detailing all of the defect information.
The NFU has analysed how processors are adapting to the needs of modern supply:
Open door policy – Walkers (PepsiCo)
Walkers suppliers have highlighted the positive level of engagement with Walkers and the openness of their factory operations. Growers have dedicated facilitators (supplier representatives, employed by their grower groups) who work at the factory sites and can help co-ordinate deliveries between groups to ensure the crop is managed in the most effective and efficient way. The facilitators also invite growers to the factory and host the visits.
NFU comment: It is important there is a level of transparency that enables growers to have the confidence their potatoes are being handled and assessed in an accurate way. Open door policies are welcome and growers are encouraged to engage with their customers in order to understand the factory operation, how their potatoes are assessed, and the basis for their payments.
Sampling accuracy – Greenvale
In 2017, Greenvale began an extended trial of a new sampling regime at one of its packing sites with the aim of delivering improved timeliness and transparency of QC communication to increase confidence in the quality analysis. The process involves taking an initial QC on arrival of the first load, with the results shared with the grower within 24 hours. Following loads are checked and only a variance in excess of three per cent from this initial sample then triggers an adjustment.
NFU comment: It is critical that growers have confidence in the sampling processes at packing and processing sites, particularly where payments are based on QC analysis. All businesses have a responsibility to monitor the accuracy of the analysis and look to implement changes that deliver greater accuracy and transparency. It is also important that variations in defects identified through the factory are communicated to the grower.
Process improvements – RS Cockerill
Cockerill is a potato-growing and packing business that supplies fresh and crisping potatoes, as well as supplying seed to many of its growers. The business assessed its existing processes and recognised the need for improving the level of information shared with its suppliers. As a result, for the 2017-18 season Cockerill has introduced a new report which sets out the levels of deductions, size fractions, soil and stones on a load-by-load basis. For processing potatoes destined for Walkers, Cockerill provides the full factory results to individual growers.
NFU comment: It is important all businesses look for ways to deliver the most accurate and timely information to their suppliers. It may not be feasible for some businesses to implement the latest technology right away, but it is incredibly important that all businesses work towards the next step.
Minimising rejections – AB Produce
Because of the diversity of its finished product range, AB Produce is a business that can utilise a wide range of raw material potato types including secondary and even tertiary grades. This flexibility means that AB Produce rarely rejects a load of potatoes but is able to restructure deals to accommodate virtually all loads of potatoes presented to it.
NFU comment: There are many variations in the way packing and processing businesses operate. While there is increasingly a move towards contracting for potatoes, there is still a need for flexibility whenever yield or quality is impacted by events beyond the growers’ control. In order to deliver greater efficiency and minimise waste in the potato supply chain, it is important to develop further options for using out-of-spec potatoes.