Big data drives the vegetable belt

Krystle VanRoboy’s dangling string of cucumbers is symbolic of the data points twinkling like stars all along the grower-processor value chain. Green shipper, Hartung Brothers, transports the final product to processors all over the United States. Like other global processors, the company has begun to collect and analyse data from the field that influences real-time decisions being made at the processing facility.  


Insect infestation in a field of sweet corn? Drought-reducing yield in a field of peas? Bonduelle, for example, aims to be on top of these conditions well in advance of the vegetables ever reaching processing plants in Tecumseh, Ingersoll and Strathroy Ontario, three of its eight plants in Canada. How? By upgrading its ability to mine big data. 


Jennifer Thompson, agriculture manager for Bonduelle’s plant in Ingersoll, Ontario recalls that in the past, analysis of data gathered from various systems was hampered by inputs that didn’t fit well when consolidated into a single repository. The solution was to upgrade the company’s AgPOD program for 2020. 


“Interconnectivity is the current theme in precision agriculture, so if we can open some pathways to other systems, that will make growers’ lives easier,” says Thompson.


This system can trace a processed product right back to the field. Contract to crop history, the system traces product through planting, scouting, spraying, and nutrient application right up to record verification.  


For growers, this eliminates duplicate record keeping and via the cloud delivers accurate information on a timely basis for Bonduelle to analyse before decisions are made, not after. It’s an industry-leading effort in North America that’s well-timed in the age of COVID-19. 


As Ron Van Damme points out, “It all starts with the smartphone. We’re able to input data in real time and there’s an instant payback to that.” 


The processing tomato and field cucumber grower at Port Lambton, Ontario explains that “there’s a big safety factor to this.” The grower can permit data access to a circle of key people: the processor’s scout, a private field consultant, a grader, farm personnel. All of them have access to spray records and can determine when it’s safe to enter a field according to re-entry intervals and pre-harvest intervals.


The data exchange is crucial for measuring up to processor needs for crop safety and transparency about the end product to consumers. Those pressures will continue unabated with the sudden attention to the center aisle.


As Keith Robbins, general manager, OPVG reports, “Canned and frozen vegetables were literally flying off the shelves in the first stages of dealing with COVID-19. Our processors have been working at capacity in a mature market.” 


In pivot-turning times, it’s too early to predict what vegetable volumes might be required for 2021. Negotiations for the 2020 crop, with a mere one per cent increase in prices, were completed before the panic buying by consumers. It is expected that processors, armed with up-to-the-minute data, will be better positioned to evaluate inventories, assess consumer demand and accordingly recalibrate volume needs for 2021 contracts. 


Canadian Grocer magazine recently reported on “Three shifts that will shape the future of grocery retail.” In its July 16 article, CG advised to watch the buying behaviours of generation Zers, work-at-home consumers and the efforts grocers expend on online product discovery. Surveys find that the majority of gen Z consumers (68%) expect online grocery delivery within 24 hours compared to their more lenient baby boomer counterparts (35%). Such consumer demands will increasingly impact supply chains in terms of both more responsive inventory management and fulfillment capabilities. 


Nielsen, a global measurement and data analytics company, provides additional insight with a statistic that 19 per cent of millennials are vegetarian while 11 per cent are fully vegan. The growing influence of this growing demographic presents an important opportunity. Bonduelle’s recent investments in packaging formats, for instance, along with its stable of trusted brands such as Arctic Gardens should prove valuable in an increasingly online shopping world.


All of these new trends are on the radar screen of Rob Bailey, founder of data-automation startup, BackboneAI. Based in New York, he has caught the ear of American producers for his comments on horizontal supply chains.


“Horizontal expansion/integration means consolidation at a stage of the supply chain,” he told The Grower. “A great example of this are regional consolidations and/or cooperatives of farmers which provide more buying and selling power on price. The biggest challenge is properly aligning incentives since it means convincing previous competitors to work together.” 


To increase the speed and responsiveness of supply chains, Bailey says that more transparency and the continuing adoption of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) generating big data are needed. 


In the crunch of harvest season, these are issues far from the immediate mind of Krystle VanRoboys, one of 325 growers holding processing contracts in Ontario. As field manager of her farm operation, she is fulfilling contracts for cucumbers, sweet corn and soon, tomatoes. 


“With the longer than normal season, the more overlap will have to be managed from cucumbers into tomatoes,” she says.


These dawn-to-dusk issues will soon fade as VanRoboys evaluates harvest data this fall. She’s confident that every minute of every day, field data are being collected that will point to sharper decisions next year.

Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes Behind the Scenes of this story and speaks with Ron Van Damme, processing tomato and field cucumber grower. Click here to listen to the podcast.

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Publish date: 
Thursday, July 23, 2020

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