7 January 2000

Support system takes out human element

MANAGING fresh produce supply to retailers should be a lot easier with a new Decision Support System, says a grower who piloted the programme last summer.

The system models crop growth, taking into account long-term weather patterns, to predict an optimum harvest date and yield, so growers can better meet customer needs.

"Up to now our supply forecasts have been based on field-walking and human judgement," says Gs Marketing salad product manager, Richard Clark. "The aim of the model is to improve on that."

In Iceberg lettuce he reckons to predict harvest date and yield three weeks in advance by field-walking. But weather changes can lead to errors. With the DSS model he hopes for four or five weeks lead-time and greater confidence.

Planting information and crop sample weights are fed into the model during the growing season. The model then assimilates these with weather data, to forecast the proportion of the crop that will meet buyer specification by a date.

"The Tesco specification for Iceberg is 400-650g. The model might say 40% of the crop falls in that band in week one, rising to 80% by week two, but dropping away in week three," says Mr Clark.

"If all suppliers were in the scheme, Tesco could calculate supplies from growers for any week and take some of the crop early if necessary," he adds.

That is echoed by Tescos David May, who co-ordinated the project for the retailer. "We can take action to secure supplies from other countries to cover shortfalls, or, if a large quantity is forecast, bring forward promotions to move more produce.

"It also gives us advance warning of quality problems, such as shorter shelf life so we can be ready to move on to another product," he adds.

Development of the model has been funded by MAFF and Tesco, under the Horticulture LINK Programme, with growers such as Gs Marketing providing data to the Reading University scientists.

MODEL LETTUCE

&#8226 Early yield predictions.

&#8226 Better harvest timing.

&#8226 Quality control improved.

&#8226 Other crops to follow.

&#8226 Only available to Tesco growers.