I had the chance on June 16 to chat with John Bailey, executive director at Top 10 Produce LLC, Salinas, Calif.
2:02 p.m. Tom Karst: Thanks for taking time for a chat today. As Top Ten Produce is closely involved with the PTI, what can you tell me about how you viewed the relaxation of the PTI timelines by PMA and United Fresh?
2:04 p.m. Bailey: First, I should clarify that we are not "closely involved" but we are closely following. To be involved you must be invited.
2:05 p.m. I think the relaxation of the timeline was the right decision. But I am not convinced that it was made willingly. It was made because in September they were going to have to face the reality of the situation.
2:06 p.m. I am not being critical. They have undertaken a monumental challenge and given the situation, the PTI is progressing as fast as can be expected. Economics rule the produce industry...
2:06 p.m. Karst: John, I know this might not be easy to do in a few words, but how does Top Ten see itself within the traceability/PTI context? What does Top Ten Produce try to bring to the equation?
2:08 p.m. Bailey: Top 10 is the National Small Farm brand. If you have a small farm and you want PTI compliance, we are the least expensive way to go. Plus we provide value that (in my opinion) the PTI does not because we provide marketing included in our fee.
2:09 p.m. Karst: How has that concept resonated so far in the market place? What are the challenges and opportunities for your company?
2:10 p.m. Bailey: Tom, the whole idea of the PTI is very unpopular with the small growers we represent. They are going to it kicking and screaming.
2:11 p.m. However, the fact that we have licensed growers in 10 states after launching the brand just over a year ago means that they see the value.
So the challenge is that if we are too closely aligned with the PTI then we are the CAUSE of their problem.
2:12 p.m. The opportunity arises when a buyer REQUIRES them to have traceable produce with approved GTINS, then we are their savior
2:12 p.m. Karst: Good point. I suppose the uncertainty of traceability language in legislation may give some growers pause, but if a buyer demands it, then the uncertainty no longer exists
2:13 p.m. Bailey: Our small growers are rugged individualists - all of them. They would not be working together "but for" PTI so see this opportunity to unite small farmers nationwide as an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
2:14 p.m. We are going forward with our program so that even if the buyers don't require traceability, we have demonstrated return on investment so that the program sells itself for marketing purposes, even if not required.
2:15 p.m. Karst: Some of what was discussed in the resetting of the interim PTI timelines was the importance of pilot projects. Have you participated in pilots over the past year and do you have anything pending that you can talk about? What are the most important questions that must be answered, in the view of your customers?
2:17 p.m. Bailey: Tom, we have a pending pilot study that is being financed by the USDA but I am not free to release the details. However, we are going to the item level so it is not a PTI pilot study. It is PTI Plus.
2:18 p.m. The most important question that must be answered is return on investment (ROI).
2:19 p.m. Karst: Interesting. You talk about return on investment. Where do growers see the benefits and returns on investment most commonly? What makes it worthwhile?
Bailey: That is the focus of our study, which was funded by a Small Business Innovation Grant. Growers DONT currently see benefits or ROI and therefore (for them) it is not worthwhile.
2:20 p.m. Where we see the opportunity is with technology and the connection to social media.
2:20 p.m. Karst: For example, smart phones and connecting with consumers?
2:21 p.m. Bailey: By using the traceability platform as a way to introduce the consumer to the grower at the point of sale, and to continue the relationship on social media, we create brand value and brand loyalty, and (perhaps most importantly) TRUST inspired by true transparency.
2:23 p.m. Twitter has just introduced "Location Tweets" where your local grocery will be mentioned in Twitter messages. If you mention one of our growers on Twitter at a certain store (they are on every label) it will show up on our website for other customers to see that beautiful Oranges from Old Creek Ranch are at Whole Foods, for example. You can also see how that customer rated the orange after they ate it BEFORE you pick it up by checking your mobile phone right in the store.
2:26 p.m. Karst: Fascinating. As you survey the field of solution providers for traceability and PTI, you would admit it is very robust company. Do you feel solution providers have been given enough direction by PTI? Are traceability solution providers in a good position going forward?
2:28 p.m. Bailey: Tom, I think it is a difficult call. You don't want the solution providers to be steering the ship because everyone will see them as acting out of self-interest. However I think the fact that you have visionaries like Elliott Grant at HarvestMark and he is not included in every conversation with the steering committee, means you miss solutions that others might see clearly.
2:30 p.m. I only mention Elliott because of their "voice pick" algorithm. If he had been involved in the conversation earlier, we might be further ahead in the PTI implementation today.
2:31 p.m. Karst: Good insights. I have kept you for a while. Just a question about your professional background. You are an attorney in the Salinas area; why were you attracted to Top Ten Produce?
2:34 p.m. Bailey: Tom, we founded Top 10 Produce LLC to be a local brand based out of the Salinas Valley. The idea was to provide item level traceability tied to "Assessor's Parcel Numbers" contained within a database and easily accessed by smart phones to pull up relevant information about the location of the farm and the grower. Replace APN with GTIN and you have Top 10. We went nationwide to get economies of scale, so that we could lower the price to a level that is affordable to even the smallest growers.
I am a full-time land use attorney.
2:35 p.m. Our VP of operations, Victor Pham is the head of the company for all except the strategic planning.
2:36 p.m. Karst: John, it has been very instructive and enjoyable to visit with you. Thanks for your time.
2:36 p.m. Bailey: And thank you for your time, Tom. Have a great day!