Pulling It All Together: Conversation With John Purcell on Growing Systems in Produce

Technology has made it so we have a deeper insight into everything from what’s being grown on every square foot of land, to responding quickly to the ever shifting needs of the consumer.

In the last episode of the season, I’m joined by John Purcell, CEO & President at Unfold, as we reflect on the conversations from previous episodes and talk how technology plays a role in every facet of growing produce.

Join us as we discuss:

  • How technology is being used and adapted in different production methods
  • The organic, regenerative and indoor movements
  • How technology is going to help make an impact on climate change

Guest Info:

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“Technology can help provide the innovations needed for the kind of experience you're looking for at the consumer level.” — John Purcell

New ideas in farming and biotech

John is an agronomic expert with over 30 years of industry experience and a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology from the prestigious University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A global advocate for sustainable growing practices, he loves to talk about it with today’s more engaged customers.

People are asking much deeper questions about the food they consume these days. They want to know the story behind the production, they want high-quality, locally-grown ingredients at an affordable price.

Utilizing the newest tools helps behemoths like Walmart deliver the produce and the sensory experience that customers demand now.

Technology and innovation are exactly what we need to ensure “sustainability” includes the economic health of the grower. From taking a closer look at plant genetics to digital crop management, agritech plays a huge role in keeping these products accessible.

De-risking the supply chain

As John points out, we’ve never heard as many horror stories about supply chain issues as we have over the last two and a half years. Anyone in the food or ag business knows it’s a major ongoing concern.

Getting inventory from one point to another without suffering loss has been the main challenge for merchants since the days of the Silk Road traders.

There’s always an inherent risk in a supply chain, especially when you’re dealing with open field production. Biotic stresses like pests, disease, temperature, and water quality changes can really affect your product, so “when you think about the genetics that you provide, you want to provide the kind of resistances that prevent loss” — more resilient genes that help plants withstand extremes and produce a healthy yield.

Biotech and digital crop solutions help growers better manage their crops and reduce loss.

John states that “combining the tools of genetics and digital crop management to make sure you're dealing with the stresses of the crop space is a way to de-risk your supply chain.”

“People think it's gotta be small and it’s gotta be local to be sustainable when the fact of the matter is: At certain scales, you can make investments in sustainability that you couldn't otherwise.” — John Purcell

Protected culture

Tech also enables a move towards having more control over the growing environment with vertical and indoor farming, more vital ways to mitigate risk and closely monitor production.

Vertical farms located near distribution centers mean produce can go from farm to delivery truck to table in just a couple of days. This can be immensely useful in the case of natural disasters, ensuring that people still have access to fresh food in that area.

We’re seeing an increase in weather extremes and climactic events as well as pest infestations due to hotter environments, and it’s not going away. These agricultural advancements will help save lives.

Communicating with consumers

The digital transformation has changed how brands connect with their customers, and it’s no different in the agriculture industry. Buyers today want to know as much detailed information as they can get and they want it immediately.

New tech is helping growers share true stories of what’s happening down on the farm in real-time, giving shoppers that insider feeling they crave, as well as relevant content that drives sales.

John shares that food retailers in the UK are highly sophisticated when it comes to telling the story of their products, all the way back to the growers. They’re taking a more comprehensive approach to consumer relations and sustainability practices, and the U.S. should be following suit.

He acknowledges that one way to improve is to consider the messengers. Chefs and celebrity food bloggers can help spread the word about fascinating new developments in seed tech and more. People who have daily customer interactions like retailers and food service workers need more up-to-the-minute info.

Start with your values

Every grower has a story, and everyone who cooks wants to prepare an amazing meal. Now it’s easier than ever to discover shared values and goals.

The regenerative growing movement is also enjoying a boost thanks to new routes of communication. These conversations about specific production systems will help farmers produce better crops.

“Organic” is quite the buzzword these days, and people think it means completely pesticide-free — but that’s not the case. And it’s not always the best way, according to John. The most important thing is to consider what you’re trying to accomplish from a sustainability standpoint.

John’s had a wild ride for sure, but he’s proud to be the CEO of a forward-thinking organization like Unfold that’s leveraging technology to improve our ecosystem and make the agriculture industry more sustainable.

“People like labels, because if that label equals this, then I'm doing the right thing, when it isn't that simple; it's much more nuanced.” — John Purcell

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