When it comes to looking good, packaging is the vehicle of presentation. No matter where consumers go to buy their produce – in a store, at a stand or online – the presentation is what persuades buyers to purchase.
“It must look good, it must arrive in perfect condition, and it can’t be ugly,” says Howard Paulson, president of Rockford Package Supply in Rockford, Michigan.
Produce not bound for direct marketing also needs to look good for the wholesalers and retailers who depend on its fresh and unbruised appearance to make the sale. Good packaging is what successful growers use to ensure that occurs.
Paulson is the second generation to own and operate the family company. Founded in 1959 by his father, Lloyd, the business originally sold bags to Midwestern produce wholesalers. Today, the company markets a full line of packaging and services for the fresh produce industry.
Packaging prices are driven primarily by the material used to make them. The lowest-cost packages are made of paper, followed by plastic. Wood packaging is the most expensive.
Plastic costs have been getting more volatile lately, notes Sam Monte, operations director of Monte Package Co. of Riverside, Michigan. “Since plastics are petroleum-based products, their costs have risen along with petroleum prices.”
Shipping also adds to the overall pricing picture, and much of that is based on how much can be shipped per load. “We ship labeled, made-up cartons to both growers and stores,” says Monte, who is the fourth generation to be involved in the family business. “We can ship 56,000 in a single semi load if they are flat, but only 2,500 if they are erected.”
No matter where consumers go to buy their produce, the presentation is what persuades buyers to purchase.
The company rents the machinery for making the cartons to its more distant, high-volume customers. The cost of shipping the erected cartons quickly overtakes the cost of shipping the machinery, which is normally two trips – there and back again.
Labeling is another cost consideration with packaging. Paulson says this part of the business has been driven by an increasing desire on the part of growers to create their own brands.
Putting a name on produce is all about creating a farm or grower-specific brand, something that nearly 80 percent of his customers are realizing will spur demand for what they grow. “In the last 10 years, the number of people who put their, or their farm’s, name on packaging has at least doubled,” Paulson notes.
Bags are about as basic as it gets when it comes to packaging. “The single most common fruit displayed in bags is apples,” says Paulson.
One of the advantages is that they’re easy to label. Since they are soft-sided, they are a good option for fruits and vegetables less prone to bruising. “All kinds of vegetables – onions, squash, peppers and tomatoes – sold in bulk are good candidates for bags.”
Producers looking for a quick cooldown for their produce need look no further than vegetable mesh.
“Vegetable mesh also presents well,” says Paulson. “It is easy to label, and its colors can be matched to the produce it holds. Mesh bags, on the other hand, are a more limited market, most often seeing use for cherry tomatoes.”
The sweet corn business has a specialty package called a corn bag. A plastic product that doesn’t puncture easily, consumers can fill the bags up with a dozen or more ears without having to worry about corn falling out of the bottom.
They store easily next to the big bin boxes many retailers use to hold the freshly picked product. For growers and outlets, they’re easy to label; for the consumer, they’re easy to carry.
Cider mills use jugs, another specialty packaging line. “Everyone puts a label on cider jugs,” Paulson says.
The use of wood is rapidly disappearing. “Wood is very expensive and hard on berries,” Paulson explains. “If it is used at all, it’s for display rather than packaging.”
Consumer demand for recyclable containers caused some major retailers to pressure packaging supply houses to provide more choices. These products offer a more environmentally friendly alternative than petroleum-based products, such as plastic.
Package suppliers also sell a more specialized display package called a marketing container. This product is what growers and retailers use to display produce that will be repackaged when consumers make their purchases.
“They are a rustic, more sophisticated way to retail, and they tend to be made of softer components, such as plastic, molded pulp, chipboard or corrugated material,” Paulson says.
A lot of people who sell produce on the internet have turned to marketing containers as their package of choice. They use them to create gift packs and fundraising products because of the protection and presentation qualities they offer.
Marketing containers are also a more rigid package than plastic, which is good for soft-skinned fruit like peaches, because they offer more protection against bruising. “They also offer heat release,” Paulson adds. “Peaches in a flexible bag will cook themselves in the summer heat.”
Shyam Sablani, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Washington State University, is working with a team of graduate students to devise better food packaging. “The dream is to create a polymer package with near-zero oxygen permeability,” he says.
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Re(C)ycle + Clean
Recycling has become a large part of the produce packaging industry. Monte says they first got requests for recyclable products from their major retail customers: Meijer, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club.
What’s interesting about package recycling is that even though the retail markets asked for the products first, Paulson says the request was consumer-driven. “The demand for recyclable packaging comes from the grassroots. The stores are responding to consumer demand.”
In response to customer demand for recyclable goods, Monte’s company started offering an alternative to waxed boxes. “It’s a wax-free box that can be used either for field packing or cooler storage for two to four days. Since it is wax-free, it is far less costly to recycle.”
Not all of the results of consumers’ heightened recycling awareness has been good. One problem you-pick growers encounter is how to deal with customers who bring dirty containers to gather produce.
The risk is a real one, says Betsy Bihn, senior extension associate at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.
“This is an especially big problem for those you-picks that have bring-your-own-package operations. There is no data yet, but the risk exists,” she says.
Being in the food production business means running a clean operation. That cleanliness extends to on-site packaging storage.
“Packaging should be stored in a clean facility in which material can be stored off the ground,” says Bihn. “It can be a room in a shed with pallets or an all-purpose barn.”
The principal goal of on-farm package storage is pest control.
“On farms, that means birds sitting in the rafters, rodents or other wildlife, [or] even domesticated animals,” Bihn says.
E. coli, listeria and salmonella are just a few of the diseases wildlife and animal contamination can bring. Barn cats are a notorious source of disease contamination. With cats, one of the big risks is toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that causes a mild, flu-like condition in most people, but is occasionally fatal.
Bihn says the best strategy is to cordon off the area where packaging is stored. “Keep it in its original container whenever possible and be sure it is covered,” she says.
Monte agrees and notes that a number of his clients are extra cautious and refuse to allow customers to bring their own containers for this reason.
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