A recent report released by WRAP estimates that around nineteen per cent of all lettuces were unharvested in 2015, with 38,000 tonnes lost across the sector worth an estimated £7million. To ensure that supply meets demand the industry overproduces, this partially due to uncertainty over weather conditions, but also as a result of specifications over the desirable ‘head size’.
Progressive producers, like G’s Growers, are working with others in the value-chain to address this issue.
Forecasting to reduce waste
John Shropshire is Director of G’s Growers, based at Soham on the Fens and one of the largest producers of salad and vegetable crops in Europe. He explained to an audience at the House of Lords how joining Agri-Tech East had helped the family-run company improve forecasting.
John says: “Across the UK, the yield and quality of crops varies greatly between farms, but even within an individual field or crop there is quite a lot of scope to improve efficiency. New technologies will enable us to do that.”
Forecasting is an area where a small improvement in accuracy could make a huge difference in profitability for farmers and producers.
Salad consumption is highly variable depending on weather – a ‘barbeque weekend’ will boost demand and a wet one depress it. The maturity of the lettuce head is another variable: there is only a short time when it achieves the quality requirements of the supermarkets; if the head is too developed it will not have the required shelf life.
Much of this material can be recycled as compost or within an anaerobic digester so the waste is not visible, but if better forecasting was available this land could be used more profitably.
John continues: “The demand for iceberg lettuce is 24/7 and we overgrow by 30 percent to make sure we have enough. Agri-Tech East introduced us to an ecologist at Microsoft to look at new ways to solve the problem.”
Following a discussion with Microsoft at an Agri-Tech East meeting, G’s Growers saw the potential to create a model that would reduce waste in the production of Iceberg lettuces. After initial discussions with Microsoft provided proof of concept, G’s subsequent collaboration with the Smith Institute has been instrumental in developing the concept further.
G’s has employed sophisticated monitoring systems to measure the growth of the lettuces and also collate data on weather and microclimate. This has enabled it to identify key growth stages and amend sowing and planting schedules to mitigate against potential shortfalls in crop availability.
The Smith Institute has been helping G’s to use this data to develop optimal production schedules that can cope with uncertainty. Additionally, it is creating an engine capable of analysing the data and creating ‘what if’ scenarios, which would allow the in-house team to consider different management strategies.
“Sophisticated monitoring technology has allowed us to identify key growth stages in the lettuce and also to collate data on weather and microclimate.” John explains. “We are now able to predict demand better than the retailers and to adjust our production schedules to mitigate against potential shortfalls, reducing waste.”
IceCAM model is now in commercial practice in the UK and Spain.