U.S.: Cornell and Washington State University team up to find which fruit characteristics are most valued

December 13 , 2018

From the pages of Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit

Cornell’s Brad Rickard is veteran of The New York Produce show and conference and our overseas events. He is intellectually curious and always trying to see how research can clarify our understanding of a wide array of issues. We’ve chronicled professor Rickard’s  intellectual journey in pieces such as these:

Cornell Professor Brad Rickard Returns To London To Unveil New Study: QUANTITY, VALUE AND DIVERSITY — The 10-Year Evolution Of Consumer Purchase Preferences For Packaged Produce

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Cornell’s Brad Rickard To Present New Research At The London Produce Show And Conference

What’s in  A Word? Sell By, Use By, Best By And Fresh By.. Can A Word Alter Food Waste Significantly? Cornell’s Brad Rickard Speaks Out

Cornell’s Brad Rickard Returns To The New York Produce Show And Conference: Will ‘GMO Free’ Be The New Organic?

What’s In A Name? Professor Brad Rickard Of Cornell Produces New Research That Indicates Shakespeare May Have Been In Error… On Apples At Least

Cornell’s Brad Rickard To Unveil Generic Produce Promotion Research Done By Cornell And Arizona State University At New York Produce Show And Conference

This time he brings with him a colleague from Washington State University and they double team the issue of what the developers of new varieties ought to be looking for. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects editor, Mira Slott, to get a “sneak preview” of their presentation at this year’s edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference:

BRAD RICKARD
Associate Professor
Ruth and William Morgan Associate Professor in Applied Economics and Management
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

KARINA GALLARDO 
Associate Professor Extension Specialist
School of Economic Sciences
Washington State University
Co-Director of the IMPACT Center

Q: Brad, it’s great you’ll be teaming up with Karina to present new research and insights at this year’s New York Produce Show: What is behind your talk: “Understanding the demand along the supply chain for new fruit cultivators”? Is there misunderstanding among the different players, and what traits are of most value to consumers?

BRAD: A plethora of studies have been conducted to estimate consumers’ willingness to pay (WTP) for different aspects of food quality, including eating quality of fresh fruits. However, fruit producers and packers/shippers’ ideas for a successful cultivar do not always coincide with consumers’ desires.

To enhance the marketplace success of a fruit crop cultivar, it is crucial to meet the dynamic demands from crop producers and consumers, as well as other supply chain members.

Plant breeding programs typically seek to develop and commercialize cultivars with improved productivity and quality that are more desirable, available, affordable, and safer, which benefit the entire supply chain.

KARINA: Knowledge of the relative values of fruit traits to different stakeholders can greatly improve breeding programs’ efficiency, by enabling breeders to focus on improving traits most desired by the market.

BRAD: Karina has a couple of nice pieces that summarize some of the work she has done in this arena trying to assess demand for new fruit cultivars and attributes for these cultivars along the supply chain. Our plan is to discuss this and then give an update on what we are working on now in the grape industry.

Here are links to two USDA projects that we will discuss in our presentation:

https://www.vitisgen2.org/

https://www.rosbreed.org/home

KARINA: I will present the results of different surveys my team of researchers and I conducted from 2011 to 2013, comparing supply chain agents’ willingness to pay for fruit quality attributes. [This research was funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative project Rosbreed: Enabling Marker Assisted Breeding in Rosaceae].

Q: What was the goal of the project?

KARINA: To compare preferences from producers, packers, and consumers for a set of appearance and eating quality traits for apple and sweet cherry.

The focus of the overall project is to facilitate and enhance new techniques for market-assisted breeding. I’m not an expert on breeding, but it allows ways to identify genes of interest in a way to accelerate production or selection of desirable traits to improve plants and genetic traits.

For example, we see to develop cultivars in apples, traditionally it takes 30 years to plant the tree, wait till harvest, etc. These new techniques make more efficient improved cultivars in shorter time.

The techniques are costly and require training to identify genetic traits of interest. This is how my team plays a role. Our contribution is to help identify what genetic traits are of interest to the whole supply chain to make new cultivars successful throughout the supply chain, obviously consumers being most important.

Q: That’s a key point, ultimately to understand and to meet the consumer preferences…

KARINA: The grower decides to invest or not, packers/shippers provide storage and marketing to a new cultivar, every agent in the supply chain is important to successful adoption… The mission is to identify genetic traits of greatest value to these different agents.

We surveyed producers, packers and consumers to find out what genetic traits they considered most important, producers and packers for business, and consumers to increase the level of enjoyment and satisfaction.

Our sampling strategy covered producers in Washington, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minneosota. 

We did a series of experiments for five crops, apples, cherries, sweet and tart, peaches and strawberries. We want to do this for table grapes next.

Q: What attributes did you ask about?

KARINA: Crispness, shelf life, flavor, external appearance-free of defects, size and firmness.,

For the results, we’re going to showcase apples and sweet cherries for fresh markets and present how consistent, or not, the findings were between the different agents, producers, packers and consumers.

Q: And how consistent were they?

KARINA: Key findings are that consumers prefer attributes related to flavors and textures. They want an apple with a good balance of sweetness and acidity and crisp texture. Consumers are not concerned about a perfect shape, a good size, or a perfect red color; they prefer eating quality attributes.

Q: How did that compare with the supplier side?

KARINA: Our research found that grower cultivars are aligned with consumers. Packers/shippers not necessarily. What we found was packers in our study tend to prioritize those attributes related to storage capacity, rates and standard, size and firmness.

BRAD: There are differences between apples and sweet cherries, which may be because storage times with apples are more manageable, and can last one year, whereas sweet cherries two weeks max. Especially packers and shippers rank or select value for these attributes.

Q: Could you provide a sneak preview of the comparative stats you collected to give attendees an idea of what’s to come?

For example, with apples, looking at willingness to pay ($ per pound):

KARINA: I have numbers in my Power Point presentation of the willingness to pay for different attributes of different crops and by different people in the supply chain.

For Crispness, the producer was willing to pay .33; the packer was willing to pay .002; and the consumer was willing to pay 1.99.

For Flavor, the producer was willing to pay .40, the packer .01, and the consumer $1.20.

For External Appearance — free of defects, the producer was willing to pay .06, the packer .12, and the consumer .89.

For Shelf Life, the producer .43, the packer .13, and the consumer .52.

For Size, the producer .16, the packer .13, and the consumer .09.

For Firmness, the producer .13, the packer .13, and the consumer .05.

Q: So, according to these numbers, producers seem more in tune with consumers, while packers seem the opposite.  Is that an accurate assessment?

KARINA: Yes. Growers are aligned with consumers, and that may be surprising. Growers need to sell their produce. A particular apple variety may be more difficult to grow and require more investment, but they know they can sell it.

Growers are happy in general to adjust production management and invest more in order to sell at a price premium, and growers understand the importance of different preferences of consumers. 

Q: The days of apples looking big red and shiny but tasting like cardboard are over…

KARINA: Red Delicious was the Number One variety for so long, until Gala’s came up, and from there a revolution in varieties took off, although there are still market segments loyal to Red Delicious, and the good sweet balance…

BRAD: I would suspect Red Delicious was really easy to grow years ago, hearty, disease resistant… it was the variety producers liked to grow. Consumers became more demanding and technology evolved as well, and new varieties developed. Consumer demand led to adjusting production, and now producers are quite in tune, and rank traits reasonably similar to consumers.

What has happened to change those preferences? It’s partly because cultivar fruit breeding programs are releasing interesting varieties, and producers are more in touch with what consumers want.

Q: Is there a reason you haven’t included retailers in your surveys?

BRAD: That is something we are interested in developing.  This new project, (VitisGen2), is a large multi-disciplinary, collaborative project focused on decreasing the time, effort and cost involved in developing the next generation of grapes.  We want to look at specific traits from all vantage points, consumers, retailers, buyers, producers… Those along the supply chain are interested in different traits, and this research helps guide the breeding process.

With all these crops, there’s been a lot of research on what are the new exciting varieties. We want to better understand how grapes will evolve in the future. Consumers see apple names, but these other fruits don’t come with names, the types of strawberries or sweet cherries are not as well known to consumers,

People spend a lot of time coming up with new cultivars. What will be most successful in the market place, Karina has done interesting work on these fruit crops, and the findings across these different traits.

Now we’re expanding this to table grapes. We don’t have anything to report yet, but the project is currently underway. We will bring a survey with us to the Show for people to fill out.

Q: You’re seeking involvement from attendees?

BRAD: We want to attract as many people as we can at the Show who are interested in and involved in growing and procuring grapes along the different stages of the supply chain; what is important and what is not important.

Q: What are some of the answers you want to find out?

BRAD: For instance, how lean or cautious are people along the supply chain to new technology and new cultivars. We want to introduce our survey and try to incentivize people to tell us what they know, tell us traits and attributes that are important with any fruit or vegetable that connects them to this research.  

Q: Would you like us to put the survey on our site for produce executives interested in participating?

A: We’re in the final stages and would like to launch the survey and make it available for the first time at the Show. People who do fill out the survey at Show can drop their business card into a raffle, and we’ll be randomly selecting a winner to receive a prize.  

It’s easier to collect information for studies like this from farmers because they have a vested interest in talking about cultivars, and for consumers we can run a panel or do a focus group. What’s more challenging is to get a hold of the people that procure or buy the fruits, and it’s important to receive their input.

Q: Do you think buyers have a misunderstanding of what’s important to consumers?  

BRAD: The New York Produce Show gathers industry leaders and innovators, so it is an ideal venue. We want to get input from buyers that know what consumers like and can help prioritize those attributes. We can identify places where people are showing preference for different traits, trying to highlight where people are lined up and where they are not.

KARINA:  It’s important to provide information on the quality traits of maximum value to the supply chain. We hope our research can contribute to improving the efficiency of developing superior cultivars.

******

This is an important, but difficult area.

First, even if we know perfectly what consumers value, when they shop they have imperfect information and so may procure based on different criteria than their heartfelt desires. In other words, when confronted with an apple, they may desire all kinds of traits, but may actually buy based on appearance. In Japan you can often see brix levels for different fruits on display and even variable pricing based on that. The real question may be how we can market fruits at retail so consumers can more easily select fruit in line with the preferences of the consumer.

Second, consumers may not express an interest in things like how high yielding a cultivar is, how easily it packs, stores, ships, etc. But…and it is a big but…consumers are certainly interested in things such as price and price can be dramatically impacted by all these things consumers don’t directly care about. It is easy for consumers to will the end – low prices – but not the means – high yields, easy storage and transport, etc.

This is an exciting opportunity to not just learn the results of research but to actively participate in the creation of new industry knowledge. Many thanks to both Professor Rickard and Professor Karina Gallardo for bringing this opportunity to the industry participants at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

 

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