The Art of Producing Food

March 20, 2017

I’ve never really had a garden. There was one year I grew a few tomatillo plants but as far as having a large, grow-your-own-food-and-be-self-sustaining garden, I’ve never had one. Not until recently.

After 15 years we finally moved to a house where the section is truly massive (compared to the previous), and with a raised garden box. So this year, my inaugural garden year, I planted it with the basics. With huge pride I’ve tended it, plucked caterpillars and watched the plants flower and fruit. For someone with degrees in agribusiness and a career marketing fruit and veg, I am amazed at watching my garden come to life.

I’m experiencing first hand what an art form producing food is. It requires so much knowledge to do it well – and I am only talking on a small scale. It doesn’t come close to capturing the knowledge and expertise my clients show every day as they plant, tend and harvest on an epic scale. An this is only the growing side of commercial sized crops. Add to that the harvesting, marketing, selling and making a profit. There is no doubt in my mind each of them is a hero.

It saddens me when I hear stories about growers “going under”, and all too often these days. Increasing costs, servicing debt, the unpredictability of Mother Nature, over-supply and the “commodity” nature of fresh produce make it challenging to earn a fair return. It’s hard to hear stories of not enough money to cover picking and packing costs or they’ve left a crop behind because there simply was no financial reason to harvest it. I think of all the work that has gone in to producing that crop, it’s such a waste.

Consumers, in general, don’t appreciate the challenges, risks, commitment and dedication required to grow fresh food in commercial quantities. They simply have no idea what is involved in getting a carrot or a peach or an apple from the farm to the plate. As a result of this ignorance, they have no basis from which to develop an appreciation of “value” for what you do. Couple this with the fact fresh food in our part of the world has always been plentiful and cheap, so their attitude, in some ways, is understandable.

I was recently at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, one of my favourite places in the whole world. Here it is easy to see both the benefits and drawbacks of abundance. I was with some friends from New Zealand and they were awed by the choice and freshness and the prices. Everything seemed so cheap; pineapples for $1, half-watermelons for $1 and mangoes for $2. It was truly a buyer’s market.

But therein lays the problem. At those prices, you know no one is making any money. And the reality is, no matter how cheap a product, a stomach can only eat so much food. If shoppers are buying cheap pines, melons and mangoes, then they aren’t buying stone fruit or apples or pears.

How do you correct the situation? I think we need to better understand demand and changing demand patterns. Perhaps it is time to start thinking about reducing the volumes of produce available and moving towards more realistic demand planning.

In addition, I think we need to work hard to increase the value of fresh produce. I am doing more and more work in this area and with some clever thinking, we’ve been able to increase grower returns. There is an art to producing food, but no one wins in the long term if that art is not appreciated or valued.

This article first appeared in Good Fruit and Vegetable Magazine, 2013.