How does food go from the farm to your table?
Have you ever wondered how the carrots you bought traveled from the farm to your table? Maybe you’ve wondered how that juicy steak made its way from a ranch in Texas to the table at your favorite steak house?
Today on the Farm Traveler Podcast, we are going to begin a new series titled: Ag 101. Each month we will cover a different topic in the agriculture industry. For this inaugural episode of Ag 101, we will be covering the Food Supply chain.
The food supply chain goes back to the days of hunter-gatherers
Mankind was once a roaming species that went out hunting and foraging for food. It wasn’t until the invention of agriculture that mankind had a steady supply of food year round in the same location. Even in a primitive state, this is when the first food supply chain was formed. Farmer Jim would take his freshly harvested corn to the market to sell. At the market, consumer Pam would buy that corn to take home to cook and eat. That basic supply chain is still in use today in many countries around the world. And it is the basis of the highly advanced supply chain we have available to us here in the United States.
How does the food supply chain work today?
The food supply chain can be described as how food items travel from their origins at a farm to eventually you, the consumer. It can be broken down into five different steps: Production, Processing, Distribution, Retailer and Consumer.
Production involves farmers and ranchers producing commodities such as fruits, vegetables, livestock, and other products. Not all states or countries produce the same thing, usually due to a wide variety of issues such as climate, available land, and soil nutrients. This requires processors and distributors to partner with farmers and ranchers from around the world to bring their consumers a wide variety of products no matter the region nor the season. In some instances, farmers and ranchers even create Co-Operatives to bring their products to consumers. For example, Florida’s Natural Co-Op is one of the largest citrus cooperatives in the United States that aims to bring consumers high quality orange juice directly from Florida. Because of this, consumers are able to buy fresh Florida Orange juice all year round and from anywhere in the country.
Processing involves transforming various ag products into various foods or into ingredients. Examples include turning peanuts into peanut butter or peanut oil, milk into ice cream or cheese, or even fruits and vegetables into juices. Processors also sort out food in terms of quality and each quality has different uses. For example, beef is ranked in terms of quality from Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard. The qualities are based on several factors, one being inter-muscular fat, which can lead to better flavor if more fat is present in the muscle. Prime beef for example is high dollar and can be found at your favorite steak house, while choice beef is lower in quality and can be found at your local supermarket. Another example is baby carrots. There are currently no “baby carrots” on the market, instead these carrots are made from regular carrots that are broken or misshapen. Instead of throwing those carrots out, processors cut them down into the baby carrots you know and love. This helps decrease food waste and it gives consumers another food choice that might be more convenient for them.
Distribution is step 3 and serves as the link between processors and retailers. Distributors transport products from processing facilities to retailers so that consumers can have easy access to agricultural goods. This can involve being transported via boat, plane, ship, you name it. Distribution is a hotly contested issue now in 2019 as more people look to buy locally to not only support local farmers, but also to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are a result of various transportation methods. While we might want to help reduce the impact we have on the environment, certain commodities just wouldn’t be available to some consumers based on their region or climate.
Retailers showcase their products to consumers, this includes locations like grocery stores, supermarkets, and now even online entities like Amazon. Retailers usually compete against one another to gain customer loyalty and try to demonstrate to the consumers why their products are superior to their competitors. This step also includes restaurants; as it provides food products for consumers. These restaurants provide consumers with the value of convenience. At a decent price point, depending on the restaurant of course, consumers can get a quick meal and save themselves their most precious resource, time.
Retailers and restaurants both use advertising to highlight their products to consumers in hopes of gaining customer loyalty. This can be done in various forms of media like labels on food items, billboards, magazine and newspaper ads, commercials, and even product placements in your favorite tv shows and movies.
And lastly step 5 the consumer, which is you the purchaser of food products. The consumer is the most powerful entity of the food supply chain and has the power to sway the industry based on their wants and needs. With their purchase, the consumer supplies the revenue that flows back through the entire food supply chain. Recently, consumers have shown trends of wanting sustainably grown products. With this data, retailers and distributors have partnered with sustainable producers to bring consumers those preferred items. Advertisements even reflect this trend as more and more commercials and food labels highlight products that are ‘All-Natural’, ‘Organic’, or ‘Sustainably Grown’. All of which is geared toward swaying consumers from one brand to another, even if those label claims aren’t 100% accurate.
In conclusion, the food supply chain is a thoroughly regulated system that provides you, the consumer, with an abundant and safe selection of agricultural commodities. No matter where you live, you can buy pretty much whatever, whenever and know that those products are safe for your consumption. So the next time you pick up that baby carrot or that glass of milk, know that it’s traveled great distances to get to your kitchen and that it’s passed through multiple layers of safety checks to ensure it’s safe for your consumption.