Agricultural logistics for tomatoes
Photo credit: Natalie Parham / Unsplash

No more rotten tomatoes: Improving agricultural logistics through technology

October 14, 2020

Editor’s note: Dmytro Lennyi is agritech practice leader at Intellias, a software engineering and consulting firm based in Lviv, Ukraine, that assists enterprises with software development. This article reflects the guest author’s views, and not necessarily those of AFN.


Certain foods, such as tomatoes, need to be transported delicately. Tomatoes can be damaged by being tossed around in shipping containers, become rotten due to inappropriate packaging, or spoil due to delivery delays. This makes it difficult for a tomato to reach a manufacturer or retailer in all its natural beauty and juiciness — or even to be good enough to become ketchup.

Who wants to sell a bad product? No one. And who in the value chain is responsible for quality? It’s hard to say. Customers look to retailers. Retailers blame manufacturers. Manufacturers get mad at producers. And producers look suspiciously at the transportation company.

What makes controlling food quality so difficult is the number of parties involved in the supply chain.

Agricultural logistics has to ensure safe transportation of perishable products to manufacturers and retailers. Of course, safe food logistics shouldn’t be taken for granted. What can agritech companies do to save tomatoes from degrading into reddish goo?


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Recently, I had a conversation with Fernando Martinez, Jaap Rommelaar, and Diego Ahumada, the founders of ZoomAgri. They were concerned about detecting transportation conditions of food products. This conversation raised my interest in agricultural logistics and ways technology can improve it.

Remote monitoring; image recognition; GPS tracking; appropriate packaging; automation; continuity of supply; and consideration of weather, road, and container conditions. These things make agrifood logistics predictable and transparent.

Rotten tomatoes don’t smell too good. Let’s take a look at how technologies used in food-delivery logistics can prevent mashed and mushed veggies, and ensure a supply of fresh produce for manufacturers and retailers.

Disruption leads to costly problems

Farmers break their backs and spend millions on seeds, herbicides, and tech to get higher yields. Unfortunately, a big part of their harvests will still be wasted because of late delivery and inappropriate transportation conditions. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 14% of food is lost between post-harvesting and retail. That’s one of the reasons why agricultural businesses lose over $2 billion in revenue every year due to logistics safety issues.

On the other hand, manufacturers lose around 5% of productivity because of downtime. Some food production companies report up to 20% losses, while 80% of food producers are unable to even estimate or calculate their possible losses. One of the most critical factors that leads to production downtime in the food industry is supply chain disruptions and irregular agricultural logistics.

The whole picture looks like this: Manufacturers lose time and spend millions on equipment maintenance while waiting for produce from farms. Farmers invest huge sums in harvesting and transportation. Still, many of their products can be spoiled while waiting their turn for delivery, or be damaged during transportation. But no matter how bad this looks, there’s always a chance to solve the problem if you figure out what works and what doesn’t.

The weakest link

The weakest link in agricultural logistics is fleet management. Farmers and manufacturers use either legacy systems for fleet management, or fleet vendors. Maintaining one’s own fleet is expensive and makes little business sense, as it leads to 80% downtime for vehicles because of the seasonal nature of the need for transportation. Often, fleet vendors have no idea what happens with their cargo during transportation and are unable to guarantee specific conditions for perishable products. It turns out that the quality control of precious cargo falls between the cracks. You’re blessed if shipping containers include some kind of shelving and fixtures for goods.

The process of ordering delivery is also old-school. A farmer or administrator calls a transportation subcontractor and orders a truck. Workers then put everything in a container, and you’re left alone to anxiously anticipate when and in what condition the cargo will reach its destination. When hiring a subcontractor for food transportation, agribusinesses have to ensure trackability and control of the cargo along the way.

Food delivery logistics software can play a key role in the supply of agrifood products. Apart from must-have features like GPS tracking and sensors for monitoring shipment conditions, you should consider several factors:

  • Weather monitoring along the way to optimize routes and conditions within containers.
  • Road situations including traffic, restrictions, and repairs that can impact scheduling.
  • Container conditions and availability of freezers and appropriate packaging.

When exporting food products, farmers and resellers face the same problem: they need to control the scheduling and conditions of food logistics to ensure the quality of goods. Agricultural logistics management software can offer transparency into food origins and the entire supply chain for consumers.

Practical solutions

The consistency of supply makes all the difference. Trackable, accurate, and consistent agricultural supply chains can solve the challenge of losses related to spoiled food, late deliveries, and production downtime.

Supply chain conditions might not be so critical with potatoes. But for more fragile products like tomatoes, the continuous flow of food from fields to production lines gains special importance. Add some automation here, and we can begin to talk about undisrupted production with minimum downtime. An entire ecosystem of software and other tech should be used to create a system that can align fleets with the needs of farmers, manufacturers, and retailers.

Technologies to ensure consistent and trackable food logistics

Now we’re getting to the interesting part: What should a fleet management system for agricultural logistics look like in order to provide better control and safe transportation of perishable foods? First, let’s look at who’s already in the game. The market currently offers some unique solutions for managing fleets that transport agricultural products.

ZoomAgri

Madrid-based ZoomAgri is now working on an agritech product that will allow for detecting not only transportation conditions but also detecting plant varieties by applying artificial intelligence and image recognition. I genuinely believe this is an interesting angle from which to approach this problem, but whether it will succeed only time will tell. ZoomAgri is currently on its way to production, so I sincerely wish the team good luck.

AgriChain

Australia’s AgriChain has built a platform that offers connectivity and collaboration between all agricultural supply chain participants. The platform works both on mobile and web to automate delivery processes, increase visibility, eliminate paperwork, manage stock, and send updates on package statuses.

Trimble Pulse

The California-based Trimble Pulse farm management platform connects equipment like tractors, harvesters, and trucks into one system so users can plan their logistics right after a harvester finishes its work. Among the noted benefits, this solution offers better productivity, limited downtime, and driver safety.

Bell.One

US-headquartered Bell.One which focuses on monitoring container conditions using reusable smart containers equipped with IoT sensors. It also provides GPS tracking modules to track food shipments.

Dachser Food Logistics

From Germany’s Dachser Group comes Dachser Food Logistics, which covers both the transportation and storage of food. Its solution can control the temperature of containers, offer individual packaging, and provide grouped and partial shipments. It focuses on traceability and strict compliance with safety measures during transportation.

FarmersEdge

Canada’s FarmersEdge is designed for producers, retailers, and large farms who are interested not only in food delivery but in transportation of agricultural equipment. The biggest advantage of its system is its ability to identify potentially hazardous conditions during transportation and improve risk management.

Most of these providers cover the particular needs of agricultural logistics and achieve a range of common benefits.

Image credit: Intellias

What most solutions are lacking is a custom approach

There’s always room for improvement, right? Potential enhancements to the existing solutions on the market include implementing recent technologies like blockchain for agriculture logistics in order to track products from seed to store shelves. Other potential improvements include the introduction of more customer-centric approaches and new partnership models.

Here are some of the ways to make agriculture fleet management and transportation of perishable goods safer:

Synchronize planning: Harvested products shouldn’t stay in warehouses for too long. The optimal solution is to align the time of harvesting with transportation to manufacturers and retailers. Food delivery logistics software should connect all the dots between various stakeholders and keep track of the deliveries in one easily accessible, customized, and regularly updated dashboard.

Automate processes: AI and machine-learning algorithms make it possible to automatically recognize an individual manufacturer’s or retailer’s need for a product and send cargo directly to that customer. Even when a customer doesn’t require products, a smart AI planning system can provide options for a continuous supply of food. By automating manufacturing with robotics, raw produce can be supplied and processed around the clock without equipment downtime.

Monitor and control: While on the road, perishable products require adequate treatment in proper conditions. Smart sensor systems installed in containers can save products from physical damage. Other IoT-enabled technology like digital twinning can assist in delivery preparation by providing suppliers with virtual representations of containers. This allows them to prepare precise packaging and plan the placement of products in freezers and other shipping equipment.

Traceable origins: As organic and healthy food gains popularity among consumers, food producers and retailers are becoming more interested in providing a transparent picture of the entire supply chain. This needs to include bulletproof evidence of product origin and compliance with standards. Blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies can provide traceability and security to ensure all parties that a product is fresh, organic, and locally produced.

Training module: It’s not always just the fault of the transportation company. Agricultural businesses have to take responsibility for packaging and transportation — or they can educate their regular logistics providers on their products and conditions required for safe delivery.

One ecosystem: It’s hard to combine so many technologies if each solution is built by a different provider. One agricultural ecosystem that unites farming and fleet functionality, shares relevant data, and provides easy access to advanced tools through a cloud-based platform can be a decisive factor for the sustainable future of the agrifood industry.

Context matters: Apart from monitoring conditions inside containers, agricultural logistics depends on contextual factors like weather during transportation, adjustability of container conditions in a timely manner, search for optimal routes to meet schedules, and the ability to recognize potential hazards along the way to prepare preventive actions.

Tomatoes with purpose

Agricultural and related businesses win big from organized food logistics. The agritech industry cannot stand still and wait for someone to solve their problems. Technologies like machine learning, IoT, location intelligence, and data analytics are already proving their worth in a range of industries. While owning a fleet to have tight control over operations is too expensive, investing in a software system that can cover the supply chain from growing food, to its delivery and processing into an end product, may turn out to be both profitable and competitive.

Agritech has the power to implement technologies that ensure every tomato achieves its purpose, increase farmers’ profits, and save logistics providers from the routine chore of cleaning up spoiled tomatoes. This will lead to a win for both farmers and manufacturers in their fight to minimize product losses and feed the world in a sustainable way.

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