Agriculture

Producing perfection

Eric Leotta in his family run stone fruit orchard. Photo: Rachel Simmonds.

What’s the use?

Eric Leotta wakes up for work before the sun. It’s 4am – pitch black outside. His white-bricked family home is nestled amongst a forest of dark green stone fruit trees. He scoffs down two pieces of wholemeal toast, lathered in strawberry jam. As he steps out the front door, his nostrils fill with a sweet smell; a concoction of nectarines, peaches and plums. Picking season is upon him. He loads the old red tractor with crates. They will be overflowing soon, but not until after a gruelling six hours under the unforgiving December sun. It’s now 4.30am. His 14-hour day begins.

He leaves the farm pack shed after the sun has set. It’s 7pm. It’s dinner time but he’s too tired to even eat. Instead he goes straight to bed so he can be ready to do it all again tomorrow. And again, and again for the next three months straight.

As we sit in the packing shed, a refrigerator humming in the distance, Leotta tells me his accountant recently told him they broke even the last financial year.

And the year before that.

“Those four or five months, I could have stayed home and watched movies and I would have been in the exact same position, so what’s the use?” he says.

He had a successful harvest producing an abundance of fruit last year. Still, he made zero profit. Despite scoring a contract to supply major supermarkets in Western Australia his business and farm struggles to stay afloat.

This is the reality many Australian fresh produce growers say they are facing due to unrealistic quality standards set by major supermarkets.

Funnily enough these quality standards have little to do with the actual quality of the produce and everything to do with how it looks. The perfect size – not too big but not too small. The perfect colour percentage. The perfect shape. How dare fruit be asymmetrical or be misshapen? No blemishes. Because perfect weather exists right?

‘Perfect’ produce. Photo: Rachel Simmonds.

According to FoodWise, 20-40 per cent of Australian farmer’s fruits and vegetables are rejected even before they reach the shops because they don’t satisfy supermarket’s cosmetic standards.

This last year has seen both major supermarkets in Australia acknowledge their role in promoting sustainability. Woolworths launched its Sustainability Plan 2025 which among other things commits to zero food waste to landfill by 2025. Coles ‘Together to Zero’ campaign launched in July this year promises to drive generational sustainability.

Despite these campaigns, many Australian farmers say they are yet to notice any meaningful sustainable change in terms of the required produce standards. Experts say a different approach is required from both supermarkets and consumers to address the problem.

Produce left to rot

Peter Ansell is a citrus grower in Neergabby near Gingin about 84km from Perth. He planted his first fruit trees into the sandy soil of his Gingin property in the early 2000s.

Ansell’s business isn’t big enough to supply direct to supermarkets, so instead he supplies to market agents at an independent pack shed. However, this doesn’t mean he gets to escape the supermarket’s quality standards. His produce is still scrutinised by market agents who themselves are required to comply with these standards.

Citrus grower Peter Ansell. Photo: Rachel Simmonds.

Ansell’s property extends on either side of a greying road. On the left, orange mandarins weigh down a dense lining of shrub-like trees. On the right is a sea of yellow – mostly lemons.

As you edge closer to the orchard, what catches your attention is not the fruit on the trees, but the fruit littering the ground. They won’t be picked up later. They are rejects, mostly under-size. Some too big.

Ansell explains that in order to meet supermarket standards, his citrus must measure exactly between 73-79mm. One mm less or one mm more and it gets rejected.

“You can go around the orchard now and find an orange carpet on the ground under the trees because we’ve just had to do a select pick. Take what’s better. What we think will sell and will give us a return.”

Gingin Citrus grower Peter Ansell

He estimates this year he has left 600 bins worth of fruit on the orchard floor – almost 200,000kg of fruit. He has had seasons where he has thrown every last lemon grown on the ground.

The 2019 National Food Waste Baseline estimates 990,500 tonnes of fruits and vegetables never make it off the farm. With another 336,500 tonnes of vegetables diverted to livestock feed.

Citrus left to rot because they don’t meet strict quality standards. Photo: Rachel Simmonds.

The cost of selling second grade fruit

For Ansell, putting his second grade produce through the system can cost him more than he would get paid for his fruit.

He will only get $5-6 for an 18kg tub of second grade fruit. To market this would actually put him at a loss. “You’re going to get a bill rather than get a return on your money on your fruit,” he says.

The Australian supermarkets Leotta supplies to impose a 60mm minimum on the fruit he sells. This minimum standard fails to take into account that early-season stone fruit is inherently smaller because of the lack of warm weather.

This leaves Leotta with an overwhelming amount of unmarketable fresh produce early on in the season. It costs him the same to dump this produce as it does to sell it. Despite this he sells it to reduce his waste. And because it hurts a little less that way. What he can’t sell will end up in the bellies of neighbouring farms livestock, for free.

 ‘Ugly produce’: The solution?

‘Ugly food’ campaigns have been hailed as the solution to food waste caused by these standards, and as a way to expand farmers markets and profits. In Australia, Woolworths led the way with the ‘Odd Bunch’ in 2014 and Coles followed suit early 2019 with the introduction of their ‘I’m Perfect’ range.

But University of Canberra associate professor in global studies Bethaney Turner argues such campaigns are flawed. Her research indicates these campaigns are far more problematic than beneficial.

Turner says there’s no dispute that ‘ugly’ and second grade produce should be made available to consumers, but it shouldn’t be marketed as ‘ugly’ food. 

“It’s absolutely devaluing the actual effort and labour and time and care that went into producing those goods, though it’s exactly the same labour to produce ugly foods as it is to produce those so-called perfect aesthetic foods.”

Dr Bethaney Turner

Leotta knows all too well the labour that is required to produce fruit, even the ‘ugly’ stuff. Due to size standards, Leotta has to pick a lot of fruit off his trees to facilitate larger growth. The labour he requires to do this usually puts him $200,000-300,000 in debt before the picking season even starts.

Farmers like Leotta and Ansell hope to be able to sell more ugly fruit in supermarkets, but they say it’s unlikely that will happen, even with the supermarkets new sustainability campaigns.

When asked how the Together to Zero campaign aims to address pre-farmgate food waste, a Coles spokesperson replied:  “[The] I’m Perfect [range] is just one way Coles is working with our suppliers to become Australia’s most sustainable supermarket under the Together to Zero waste focus area.”

The I’m Perfect range was introduced in early 2019.

Woolworths declined to comment.

A thick stack. Folders containing the standards producers have to comply with in order to supply major supermarkets. Photo: Rachel Simmonds.

Consumer demands

Curtin University senior lecturer at the School of Management and Marketing Elizabeth Jackson says we need to acknowledge our role in both creating and perpetuating these standards.

“People come to expect absolutely consistent quality no matter what, and if they don’t get it, they kick off. I think society has become so stupid that they just have that blanket rule of repeatable quality for absolutely everything. For anything that’s ultra-processed, yeah, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable assumption, but for fresh produce – that’s wrong.”

Dr Elizabeth Jackson

Ansell has been left frustrated and confused at what consumers expect. Whilst in Yanchep Woolworths one day, he came across his lemons on the supermarket shelf – the Gingin Citrus sticker proudly beaming back at him. They were first grade lemons, ‘perfect’ by supermarket standards. He noticed a woman approach the shelf. He counted the woman pick up almost 30 lemons. She bought only two.

“I felt like going up and saying ‘what are you looking for?’ But she just inspected all these lemons before she bought just two, and this is what you’re up against in the shops.

“The buying public have been trained by the supermarkets that blemished fruit is not the way to go. They want the perfect bit of fruit. And I guess oversupply dictates that.

“I guess I can boil it back [to this] all the time. We live in an oversupply world and while the buyers can dictate the world – we hurt,” he says.

The mental toll

For Ansell, the pressure to produce perfect fruit has not just been a financial burden. The frustration of complying with such stringent specifications cost him a mental breakdown in 2014.

Ansell recalls a once eager farmer with high standards and high hopes for his farm. He has left that person far behind.

“The frustration just drove me insane to the point where I collapsed mentally, and took me a long time to dig out of it,” he says.

Peter Ansell speaks of the mental burden being made to comply with these standards has had on him. Video: Rachel Simmonds.

For Leotta, much of the exhaustion and stress stems from frustration.

“I think it’s a mental anguish because most of the auditors that come here have never grown a piece of fruit in their life. Yet they come here and tell not just me but other growers that have spent all their lives growing fruit on practically how to grow a piece of fruit,” he says.

‘Ridiculous’ standards

Fresh produce waste. Infographic: Rachel Simmonds.

Leotta says all it takes is 10 per cent of a sample size of 10-15 fruit to fail quality standards for an entire truckload of fruit to be rejected. He has experienced 500-600 boxes being rejected at once on this premise.

He then has to re-pack all this produce again, marking it against quality standards for a second time, a process which drains more money from Loetta’s business. Come the end of the season, it’s not uncommon for Leotta to have one-quarter of his total produce rejected by supermarkets.

The quality standards don’t just dictate the fruit Leotta can send to market, they also dictate the way he runs his business.

Leotta has to go as far as to sign in and out the four felt tip pens he uses to mark the boxes in the pack shed. He has to do this every day otherwise he risks a corrective action. “It’s just gone overboard. Yeah, it’s just too much,” he says.

Not only is complying to these standards difficult – it costs a lot. Leotta is charged $4000-5000 for an audit, which lasts no more than a day. “To me it just seems like a money racquet. It just seems as if this is something that’s been dreamt up by somebody to make money because it doesn’t benefit us at all,” he says.

When I ask Leotta how the burden of complying to these standards stacks up against other issues he faces as a farmer, he draws a long breath: “I rank it as my highest cost.”

Solutions

Bethaney Turner from the University of Canberra agrees consumers play their part in this issue, but says they shouldn’t cop all the blame. She says they expect perfection only because of the conditioning that has occurred.

For Turner, this issue is a whole system issue that requires a total overhaul of the way we think about food. “I think this is fundamentally about the way we value food. And the fact that actually, the production of food in Australia is not adequately valued.”

Her research indicates people who talk directly to producers are much more inclined to value food regardless of its appearance. “There is a revaluing occurring, but it’s not filtering down into the dominant supermarket chains which still control the ways in which we can encounter these foods.”

Jackson says whilst pre-packing food is contentious due to waste associated with packaging, it is one of the best ways to prevent both food prejudice and waste. Although it may seem unimaginable in our self-service world; the concept isn’t new. Prior to the 1950s, this was the dominant practice of supermarkets.

Leotta supports this approach. He sees removing choice and pre-packing food as the best solution to pushing through more ‘ugly’ or blemished fruit. He believes returning to old ways may be the only way forward.