On December 29, Waitrose fruit buyer Amy Lance leaves England once again to start the new year working in South Africa as part of her 12-month sabbatical to gain real-life experience with different growers around the world. She’s been picking chillies in 100 degree heat in Senegal and collecting chicken eggs on an organic farm in southern California – and now she’s off to South Africa.
PBUK caught up with Amy at the New York Produce where she presented as part of the Global Trade Symposium. She spoke passionately about swapping her desk job just outside London to really drill down through the supply chain and gain fascinating insights from the grower’s perspective.
“I’ve travelled to 15 different countries and sourced products from suppliers, but as a retailer I was only ever being exposed to a very small part of the supply chain. It was the tip of the iceberg and I really wanted to find out more about it,” she says.
“I could see that throughout the supply chain there were so many more pressures, challenges and opportunities that I really needed to understand so that in the future I could make far more strategic and informed decisions.”
Amy brought a sweetcorn cob with her on stage to illustrate her story. She describes how a retailer looks at the cob and immediately would want a good price, think about availability, quality and the range of countries from which to source the sweetcorn throughout the year to secure supply.
“I was probably, at certain times, only looking at a small number of these contributions that needed to be put in place in order to put this piece of corn on my supermarket shelf. I wanted to look at this piece of corn from many different perspectives and I have travelled over the last seven months now to try to investigate some of those challenges that other supermarket buyers may never see.
“As a grower, I would want the seeds to have a good germination rate, I would want the disease resistance to be pretty strong and would want the husk to cover the top of the sweetcorn to make sure there was no bird damage or insect infestation. As a marketer I would want to make this sweetcorn had good size, to make sure there was no dehydration in the cobs. And as a customer, ultimately, I would want it all; the customer needs all of these considerations to be equally important to make sure this piece of corn is the most efficient piece of corn that we can get, to get a good price.”
Amy first jumped the fence from retailer to grower destined for organic and biodynamic Apricot Lane Farms in southern California.
“My journey has taken me to the US where back in May I spent three months working on a farm in southern California, then Senegal in West Africa, which I have just returned from, and South Africa this coming January for three months.”
Amy explains that she didn’t want to sit back at these work placements, the whole point was to get real, get her hands dirty and to work the same ten hour shifts as everyone else.
“I wanted to work in the packhouse and in the harsh heat of Senegal picking chillies on my knees. I wanted to do everything that anyone in the supply chain was doing to experience that fresh produce first hand.
“I was met with a few raised eyebrows, obviously I wasn’t wearing a dress, I was dressed in jeans and ready for a good day’s work. It was quite challenging to convince a lot of the people I knew in the industry that this is what I wanted to do for the next year.”
Apricot Lane Farms
Run by former chef for Tom Cruise, Molly and film director John, Apricot Lane Farms was where Amy began her agricultural odyssey.
“It was a really interesting combination of people who weren’t necessarily involved in the fresh produce businesses three years back but now they have a really successful business and they look at things very differently compared with a lot of other people in the industry.
“Their films are aired on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday very frequently and get good agricultural practise across to millions of people across the world.
“Some of my tasks at Apricot Lane involved clearing out the chickens, or spreading fertiliser, very hands on – but they were actually very intellectually stimulating. I was coming up with challenges in the industry that I hadn’t had time to think about in my day job at Waitrose.”
Amy explains how her sabbatical is allowing her to really get embedded in the industry in ways she never would have done from sitting behind a desk.
“Apricot Lane is an organic farm where soil is at the heart of their business. Their belief is that a healthy soil is capable of providing high quality, nutrient dense food whilst improving land quality, building resilience and ultimately creating a more productive farming business and community. Soil is one of the key building blocks on the farm and delivers mosts of the ecosystem services that they require.
“Thinking about this as a buyer I was faced with a challenge. How can I make sure the growers that I am working with are as passionate as John and Molly about soil health and all these environmental aspects I had going through my mind?”
A brief period of study
The second part of Amy’s sabbatical involved a stint at UC Davis to delve into the latest and best agricultural practises, post harvest technologies, trends and research.
“When I was driving up the central valley towards Sacramento I couldn’t help but notice some of the billboards that were posing the question ‘Is growing food wasting water?’. Then I tried to look a bit differently, rather than look at the water availability in California, I was looking at how much water is wasted throughout the supply chain through post harvest loses.
“So ‘Is growing food wasting water’ was one of the key reasons I was travelling up to UC Davis in the first place. I really want to minimise post harvest loses and find out how I could do it from a retailer and also as a growers, marketer and as a packer.”
Amy returns to her sweetcorn cob.
“Fresh produce is easily damaged, it’s got a high water content and its extremely diverse in its genetics, tissue, physiological state and it’s ultimately still alive post harvest.
“Taking this cob of corn as an example. Looking at it, you’ve got the husk which is brilliant protection whilst in transit, once you take off the husk, if the cob is long enough you can break it in two and produce cobettes. To preserve this cob of corn you can use packaging and technology.
“If the respiration rate changes over time because of weather or other environmental impacts, you can change the MAP (modified atmosphere packaging) film according to the respiration rate to extend the shelf life, ultimately saving water and minimising waste.”
Farm work in Senegal: Société de Cultures Légumières (SCL)
The company Amy was working for during her stint in Senegal, SCL, turned the husks of the corn into fuel, an example of a fresh produce grower really working with the local community, and not hindering it, she says. From this basic waste product, and by investing in biodigesters, there is enough fuel to power 3,000 homes, 800 acres of liquid fertiliser and an entire factory.
“Over the last three months in Senegal, it’s surprised me how the purchase of one piece of sweetcorn in the UK in the winter months can benefit a community of over 10,0000 people. SCL is based about 40 minutes outside Saint-Louis in Senegal, they’re a rural growers of sweet potatoes, chillies, green beans and zucchinis.
“I first visited to approve the produce coming into the UK market and it was a fascinating journey to travel back seven years later to visit a farm that had tripled in size and diversified massively in crop type and it was a brilliant three months to spend there.”
Amy explains the impact SCL has had one the local community; from building schools to clean water initiatives.
“They haven’t done this because a retailer has asked them to do it, their business has been built with the community and you can truly see that when you visit them in Senegal. This is a positive story where one product can make a real difference to a community.
“This is really what I am trying to get across. Looking at things differently and looking at different perspectives is such an important part of the way to work. To be able to understand parts of the supply chain that I would never normally get to explore has been a fascinating seven months for me and broaden my view of fresh produce.”
* You can follow the last leg of Amy’s odyssey in South Africa with regular updates in PBUK.