Florida-based berry grower and shipper Wish Farms uses its produce traceability program to pack more than food safety into its clamshells.

Each container may also contain picker incentives, customer feedback and insight for the grower’s retailers.

“The traceability of our program allows us to see things we wouldn’t otherwise see without that trace back to the clamshell,” said Shad Simmons, farm manager at Simmons Farms, Inc. near Plant City, Florida, which grows 135 acres of strawberries for Wish Farms. “It is definitely worth it. Our pickers are ready to work, and they like it because it keeps them in check and if we have a problem we can work with the crew leader to address any issue.”

Known throughout traceability circles as a pioneer, Plant City-based Wish Farms is a year-round supplier of strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. The company’s patented approach, How’s My Picking?, connects consumer feedback to specific information from each day’s strawberry harvest to the clamshells and pickers who put them together.

“It’s physically impossible for us to inspect every piece of fruit,” said Dustin Grooms, a farm manager at Fancy Farms, which grows 170 acres of strawberries for Wish in Plant City. “This is almost like an insurance policy. These pickers know if they put bad fruit in the clamshell they won’t be working here. It’s a good check and balance system and it keeps everyone honest.”

Wish Farms executives concede that taking traceability to item level has been an investment, but they say the information they collect as a result is vast and useful.

“I see this as a true competitive advantage,” said Wish Farms President Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation owner. “There is a little extra cost, but to me it’s invaluable because you get information and consumers want to know where their food is coming from. I think it motivates all of us to do a better job. I see a multitude of benefits and so the fact that it costs a little more money, I think, pays dividends over that.”

Reconnecting to the farm

Although many growers don’t use item traceability, they still report marketing benefits beyond all-important food supply.

Mike and Nori Naylor of Naylor Organics in Dinuba, California, introduced traceable stickers to their 30 acres of commercially grown peaches and nectarines before there were food safety requirements to connect with their customers.

“We’d get email and phone calls from people who were purchasing our fruit and that was kind of neat because that is what we wanted to happen,” said Nori Naylor. “It has been a very positive thing for us to have those stickers that bring people back to our web page and our farm.”

The Naylors contracted with Top 10 Produce LLC, a traceability company funded by a $190,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2009. For $280 a year a grower receives codes, label design, a web presence and agricultural consulting services for setting up traceability. In “co-op-“erative style, farmers enjoy discounts on labels for their products.

Top 10 Executive Director John Bailey, a Salinas, California, land use attorney with a passion for fruit marketing, said the company licenses its brands to growers in 16 states with acreage averaging from five to 400 acres.

For the Naylors, marketability of their brand has extended beyond their 30-acre commercial farm. The Naylors also offer farm tours and a few acres of peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums that visitors can pick. The couple opens their home in the style of a European hostel to host visitors at Naylor Organics Family Farmstay and this attracts vacationers from around the world.

“The sticker traces back to the web page we have with Top 10, and our contact information is there so they are free to look at that and then contact us personally,” Naylor said. “I think it helps the customer have more confidence in the quality of the product if they have a connection to the person or persons who have actually produced it. It brings it back to the source and I think the benefit of that is it helps the customer to feel more secure about where it came from. And they can ask questions, and we are always happy to answer.”

Berry grower Wish Farms was an early adopter of product traceability and the company has pioneered marketing uses beyond food safety. For example, the company’s system connects strawberry pickers with each clamshell they pack. When customers respond to the company’s feedback campaign those comments and ratings are available to growers, giving them an opportunity to reward a job well done.

Although Top 10 has the ability to connect its growers on multiple social platforms, it has a low-tech appeal for some growers, too. Bailey said that a third of the co-op members are Amish growers who cannot use telephone or digital communications, but who need traceability to comply with their own customers’ requirements.

“We have them contacting us regularly through someone else,” Bailey said. “We can’t advertise to them because we are only online. Amish growers can’t use the phone to call us but they are finding us by word of mouth.”

Brian Truax, a farmer and owner of Falling Waters Farm in Indianapolis, Indiana, said that no matter where the company’s vegetables, greens and fish are sold their traceable labels from Top 10 gives them local flare that consumers seek.

“This looks new and fresh and when it is grown by someone down the street, it feels real,” said Truax. Falling Waters is a warehouse farm that uses aquaponics to grow vegetables including basil, kale and microgreens along with tilapia and perch. The organic fare is distributed within a 250-mile radius.

Truax said price point was a consideration when the newer grower shopped around for traceability programs, but the investment has been worth it.

“I know one of our biggest distributors was able to find us because of our UPC, and that made up the $280 difference,” Truax said. “It’s pretty easy to see.”

Wish Farms’ Way

Wish Farms’ ability to connect its strawberry clamshells individually with consumers is linked to the traceability program Wishnatzki developed called FreshQC. Wish Farms has trademarked the program as “How’s My Picking?”, and the path field-packed strawberries follow from farm to table includes:

  • Picking and packing: Strawberry pickers apply a master label on the clamshell and corresponding labels with a 16-digit code to each package.
  • Marriage: Berries are checked and scanned at a quality control station and the master label and picker employee badge are scanned, marrying the package to its picker
  • Feedback: Consumers are asked to visit HowsMyPicking to enter the unique 16-digit code and fill out a survey. Growers have access to consumer comments.
  • Campaigns: Consumers have incentives to respond via Wish Farms’ giveaways.
  • Responses: Consumers are asked to rate their experience on a scale of zero to 10, with grocery reimbursement gift cards given for scores of six or below.
  • Rerouting: Consumers receive a thank-you message for survey participation, and then they are routed to a grower profile so they can see where their fruit was grown and picked.

“We are collecting all of this data and we are able to use this for our marketing,” said Amber Maloney, Wish Farms’ marketing director. “We can send out e-blasts, (and) we can do campaigns, but we look at it as an extension of our retailer’s customer service. If a customer has a complaint or praise we can share this with our retailers.”

Addressing consumer feedback builds the brand, Maloney said.

Fresh blueberries from Wish Farms

“You’d be amazed,” she added. “Most people, when they share their feedback, they are either really happy or really upset or they have a question. We can address these and they become loyal customers of Wish Farms.”

When strawberry pickers receive a certain number of positive scores they receive a gift card and a printout of responses with their paychecks.

“Not everyone does it, but it is an opportunity to reward workers,” Maloney said. It’s a big commitment, especially with labor getting more and more difficult every year. It has taken years to get buy in from growers and training in place for the pickers.”

Wish Farms uses a similar process for its blueberries, which are packed on a packing line. Wish Farms uses inkjet printing to add a 16-digit code to the clamshell to determine the grower, pack house, variety and packing date.

“This process is a little different, but we wanted to implement it across all of our berries,” Maloney said.

Although pinpointing what the return on investment is for its traceability efforts is difficult, evidence of its effect on Wish Farms’ customer connection is powerful. The company received 25,000 responses to a sweepstakes campaign last year and boasts 135,000 fans on Facebook.

“I really think it has to do with people wanting to feel closer to their food source,” she said.

Traceability continues to catch on

Growers and traceability vendors alike note that in many cases farmers are not expanding tracking programs unless they must.

“Most of our customers call us because the stores tell them, ‘You need these labels and if you don’t have them we won’t buy your product,'” Bailey said.

Many growers continue to believe the way they have sold for generations is best.

“I think the produce industry is very fragmented, and still very much the same way it was 100 years ago,” said Dan Sun, president of HarvestMark, Inc., which is a fresh food traceability company based in Sunnyvale, California. “But, with technology today we can change that and get them connected with their customers.”

For example, most farmers don’t have budgets for surveys or focus groups.

“With technology, they have a way to find out how consumers use their product and promote healthy food,” Sun said.

Creating connections with customers was the goal for Mike and Nori Naylor, who own and operate Naylor Organics in Dinuba, California. Traceable stickers on the Naylors’ peaches and nectarines satisfy food safety standards, but they have also opened new doors to promote the couple’s picking orchard, tours and farmstay getaway.

“One of the problems we have is that fresh produce gets wasted very fast and it’s hard to compete with premade, packaged food. How do you promote better eating habits?” Sun asked. “There is a social benefit that is not only for marketing and profits but benefiting consumers and growers at the same time.”