Each year, roughly 1.3 billion tons of produce is wasted, globally — discarded into landfills unconsumed. This wastes not just the fruit or vegetable in question, but also all the time, land, money and water that went into growing it.
How that food ends up in the landfill varies — farmers who leave crops in the field because it is cheaper to let them rot than harvest them in a down market; consumers whose eyes are literally bigger than their stomachs and throw out more fruits and vegetables than they consume; products damaged in transport from farm to store and left unfit for sale.
Moreover, there’s the ugly produce — perfectly healthy food that tastes perfectly fine but is unfit for the beauty contest that is the grocery produce aisle. Gnarled carrots, misshapen cucumbers, twisted celery, lumpy onions, to name a few, are among the produce that farmers can’t sell because consumers won’t buy them. Consumers tend to shop with their eyes, Christine Moseley, founder and CEO of Full Harvest, told Karen Webster, which means lumpy eggplants have a hard time finding a home.
There are all kinds of B2C operations trying to convince consumers to think differently about ugly fruit, Mosely said. So although that is a highly worthwhile pursuit, it is not the one that took her interest as she started to investigate entrepreneurial efforts to take on food waste. When she did, she noted that there is a large and unconsidered swath of potential product buyers in the B2B food supply chain that couldn’t care less what the produce they purchase looks like — and would be delighted to buy uglier produce especially if it costs them less.
“My last job was at an organic juice company and I loved the product we sold, but felt frustrated that we were selling it at $13 a serving,” Mosely told Webster. “That price wasn’t the mark of luxury goods. The green juice firm ran on thin margins. It was because even at a wholesale price — the fresh fruit they needed to buy and to put into those juices was just very expensive. “
It also occurred to her that it didn’t have to be. A company that was ultimately throwing all of its fruit into a blender didn’t need the fruit to be grocery store attractive. With “tens of billions of pounds of food being left at the farm level because they were the wrong shape” she said, it was obvious there was a better solution if someone could help those growers connect with those businesses that need functional, not necessarily beautiful, produce.
Full Harvest, Moseley noted, was designed to be a digital platform to bridge that gap so that farms with produce to unload can easily and directly put it into the hands of businesses that want it.
Digitizing An Extremely Analog Industry
While it is easy to assume that everything under the sun in the U.S. has either gone digital or is at least on the path there — in the world of fresh produce and farm goods nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Moseley said, around 96 percent of all transactions take place offline.
On top of being profoundly analog, produce supply chains are also extremely fragmented — broken up among a lot of small players with regional networks that are powerful but have small footprints — and aren’t even remotely interconnected with each other.
“About 80 percent of the distribution is managed by mom and pop shops that have 20 employees or less,” Mosely explained, adding that they are aren’t going digital because they don’t have the resources to become tech companies.
What Full Harvest offers is a technological meeting place of mostly consumer packaged goods companies who can find farms with excess — even ugly — supply from which to buy. Those sales, according to Moseley told Webster, generally come in two forms. The first is subscriptions — a buyer is looking for a set type and amount of produce to be delivered on a regular schedule. Or, she said, via an open market, where buyers can snap up what happens to be available that day — usually due to excess inventory.
The platform, she noted, is optimized around simplicity and ease of use — a shopper who is capable of buying something on Amazon is fairly quickly able to navigate the Full Harvest platform. As for the savings, those can vary depending on what is being bought and how much, but tend to run in the 10 to 30 percent range. Which, she said, is often a huge deal for the farmers with that supply.
“At the end of the day, 65 percent of farms are facing bankruptcy and so they absolutely are looking to drive sources of incremental income. For us that has meant focusing first on building up the demand side of the platform so we can go to farmers with a technology-based way of selling more with no inventory risk and very little effort on their part,” Moseley said, noting the phrase “no-brainer” comes up on a lot of their sales calls.
The Scaled Future
While Full Harvest is adding new markets and platform users every month, Moseley said, they are still primarily a West Coast focused operation. That, she noted, was by design — the majority of some of U.S. crops are grown in California and nearly half of all consumer packaged goods companies are in the Western half of the U.S.
However, she said, the goal is to grow bigger — and create a more extensive web of digital connections between buyers and sellers in the produce markets. First, she noted, that will mean nationwide expansion, something she sees happening in the relatively near future. After that, the goal is to take on and expand into global markets, as food waste is far from a U.S. only problem.
The big expansion, however, will eventually be into the broader produce market itself — ugly and not. Today, Full Harvest is focused on food waste at the farm level — and helping it find its way into the right hands by tapping the power of technology to connect buyers and sellers.
However, she noted, when one looks at how very much of the market remains firmly lodged in the pre-digital era — it becomes apparent that the bigger solution is one that is going to help get the entire market into the 21st century of commerce.
“This is a supply chain that needed a solution for digitizing in a scalable way a decade ago, but as of yet nothing has materialized. So, of course, we would like to create a produce marketplace for all businesses and all kinds of produce. Only 4 percent of this market being online in 2019 is just unacceptable.”