2 April 1999

Assurance is extra service

ASSURANCE must be regarded as a service to customers, says Martin Evans, technical and production manager of newly-formed vegetable co-op Fresh Growers.

Only by taking the initiative and offering more detailed information about how food is produced can growers hope to access the most rew-arding markets, Mr Evans believes.

The 14-farm group, with an estimated area of 8100ha (20,000 acres), produces carrots, bulb onions, parsnips and vining peas with an annual value of over £15m. Based at Tuxford, Notts, it was set up to offer stability to both members and their customers in a notoriously cyclical sector, he says.

After a year of good carrot prices and shortages, everyone expects a depressed and grossly over-supplied market. By tailoring supply to dem-and, offering customers forward pricing options and improving efficiency FG hopes its members can ride the storm, adds marketing and operations manager Andrew Storey.

"We are not just thinking about product," says Mr Evans, former farms manager with Evesham-based salads and vegetable supplier Bomfords. "We concentrate on supplying a service in the shape of reliability, stability and continuity. Today if you go into a supermarket you dont just pick up a carrot. You pick a carrot with a service bolted on. If you look at the tray label, you will see a lot of detail about supplier, grade and date delivered."

The group sells to supermarkets through the countrys leading packers. "We supply established packers and are moving ahead by offering vendor assurance – we undertake quality control at source before the product ever reaches them.

"Next season we will wash and grade our carrots into different customer-specific sizes to make the crop more marketable. And each product will get a quality passport including details of variety, source, breakages and loading. That is all logged before the produce ends up with the customer.

"We often send out 40 loads of 25t a day, so we must make sure we are getting the correct product to the right market. With transport costing £10/t it doesnt make sense to deliver something that is only 60% packable. We have to get it right in the first place."

Assurance also includes being able to satisfy packers that due diligence has been taken in the production process, adds Mr Evans. Schemes like Assured Produce which developed out of the NFUs protocols, Tescos Natures Choice, and LEAF all play the assurance theme. All are certain to be developed further as customers become more demanding, he believes.

"Pesticides are fairly high on the agenda. One of the advantages of Natures Choice is that it is flexible enough to allow growers to have their say about what can and cannot be used.

"Worker welfare is another big area getting more attention." Already the Natures Choice protocols have moved on to recognise that product selection is now based not just of efficacy but user exposure." For example, Decis (deltamethrin) pyrethroid insecticide is more operator-friendly than Hallmark (lambda-cyhalothrin), he notes. &#42

LESSONSFROMVEG

&#8226 Increasingly tight specs.

&#8226 Volatile markets.

&#8226 Vendor assurance.

&#8226 Worker welfare issue.