Following our Food: A Northern California Supply Chain Adventure

by Christina Skonberg and Krissy Scommegna

How do people at different points of food production make decisions? As part of a directed study on Sustainable Supply Chain Management, Friedman students Krissy Scommegna and Christina Skonberg spoke with representatives at three different food and beverage businesses in California to learn how producers weigh costs and benefits to yield optimal results.

While the Obamas packed up the last of their belongings at the White House on January 19, 2017, we walked through the doors of Jaharis for our last first day of school ever (hats off to the indefatigable PhD students who may still have a few more to go). As we anticipate our transition away from Harrison Avenue in May, we reflect on this crossroads between academia and employment. The Agriculture, Food, and Environment curriculum has taught us to use sound data sources and unbiased modeling techniques to substantiate every claim we make, encouraged us to address how the food system disproportionately advantages some at the expense of others, helped us develop a systems approach to analyzing food production and consumption, and much, much more.

As we embark on one last semester of group study sessions and post-class beers, we return to a central question that drove many of us to attend graduate school in the first place:

How will we effectively apply these tools to real situations involving real people beyond the boundaries of academia? Do farmers in the Northern Plains actually develop quantitative models to determine which wheat varieties they should cultivate given climatic conditions, prices, and market demand? Do food and beverage packaging specialists conduct elaborate life cycle assessments to determine which materials have the lowest carbon footprint? Do retailers meticulously vet suppliers based on environmentally sound soil management practices? Or, do many of these producers forego elaborate methodologies to instead make decisions based on instinct and habit?

In our last four months at Friedman, we’re seeking to address some of these questions through a directed study on Sustainable Supply Chain Management. In speaking with over 20 food industry professionals who operate at different points of diverse supply chains around the country (read: Nebraskan cattle ranchers, Californian coffee procurement specialists, and Pennsylvanian butchers), we hope to explore how food producers optimize outcomes given their unique goals and constraints. In the classroom, we immerse ourselves in the minutiae of soil health, herbicide resistance, tillage techniques, and other important facets of on-farm production. Through site visits and interviews, we hope to deepen our understanding of decisions and tradeoffs beyond the farm gate and into the manufacturing, distribution, retail, and waste sectors of the wider food system.

Eager to escape the New England winter and set out on our supply chain quest, we ventured to Northern California over winter break to conduct our first few interviews. Below, we share stories from a handful of the inspiring producers we met.

Front Porch Farms: Healdsburg, California

Interviewee: Johnny Wilson, Farm Manager

Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, California Photo from Front Porch Farm’s Official Website: https://fpfarm.com/

Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, California
Photo from Front Porch Farm’s Official Website: https://fpfarm.com/

On a rare rainy day in Northern California, we trekked to bucolic Healdsburg to see how Front Porch Farm Manager Johnny Wilson cultivates the scenic 110 acre, 30+ crop farm. Perhaps most famous for their perennial cut flowers, wines, and Italian heritage polenta, Front Porch Farm is in many ways a paradigm of ecologically sound production. Drip irrigation systems line orchards, organic compost fertilizes fields, and their giant but gentle puppy Hilde assists in predator control. When asked about how the team determines which seeds to select from catalogs like Baker’s Creek and Seed Savers Exchange (yes, farmers still buy seeds from catalogs!), Johnny explained that while profitability is an undeniably important factor, the team also focuses on the ecological and cultural significance of crops. Enriching the agricultural diversity of Sonoma County (winegrape cultivation currently dominates the region), maintaining a polyculture system that fosters long term soil health and wildlife biodiversity, and experimenting with new varieties that excite the team are all considerations that go into the seed selection process. For Front Porch Farm, the generation of social and environmental value is inextricably linked to the success of their business. To see what diversified farming looks like at Front Porch, check out the map of their impressive agricultural mosaic in Healdsburg.

Blue Bottle Coffee: Oakland, California

Interviewees: Jen Flaxman, Learning and Development Manager & Melissa Tovin, Finance Operations Manager

Blue Bottle’s Roastery and Production Facility in Oakland, California Photo from the Washington Business Journal, December 2016

Blue Bottle’s Roastery and Production Facility in Oakland, California
Photo from the Washington Business Journal, December 2016

Jen Flaxman and Melissa Tovin of Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland are intimately familiar with the complexity of international supply chains. As the Learning and Development Program Manager, Jen ensures that effective employee training and education programs help Blue Bottle employees in California, New York, and Japan thrive in their jobs. Melissa is Blue Bottle’s Finance Operations Manager and she spends much of her time forecasting appropriate procurement quantities for all Blue Bottle cafes (there are 33 globally). Among the many fascinating things we learned from Jen and Melissa was that much of the decision making around procurement quantities of green coffee (unroasted coffee beans) lies within the Finance department of Blue Bottle rather than in the Production department. Melissa—a veritable Excel whiz—explained that this improves accuracy in predicting and meeting demand, allowing the company’s green coffee buyers to focus their energy on developing supplier relationships in the field and upholding coffee quality standards. For Blue Bottle, technical tools like modeling are critical to supply chain decisions, and starting this summer you can taste the quality yourself in Boston. (Students in Chris Peters’ Food Systems Modeling course this semester may want to take note and highlight those analytical skills on their resumes!).

Three Thieves: Napa, California

Interviewee: Roger Scommegna, Thief

Left: Current Packaging for Bandit 1L Tetra Pak; Right: Roger Scommegna in his element Photos Courtesy of Roger Scommegna

Left: Current Packaging for Bandit 1L Tetra Pak; Right: Roger Scommegna in his element
Photos Courtesy of Roger Scommegna

Over a warm cup of non-Blue Bottle Coffee in Berkeley, we discussed the wine industry with beverage entrepreneur Roger Scommegna. Full disclosure, he may have been coerced into this interview due to family ties. As one of the founders of Three Thieves, Roger has spent the past 16 years working to bring high quality wines to the masses at low prices—a noble cause for grad students on a budget. Three Thieves achieved this model by initially packaging their wine in one-liter glass jugs and later establishing an offshoot brand, Bandit, available in half and one-liter Tetra Paks instead of traditional bottles.

Roger provided many insights into the beverage industry, but perhaps most interesting was his perspective on getting products into retail establishments. Roger discussed “gatekeepers” (wine buyers at different grocery chains like Safeway and Costco), and their authority in determining which products to purchase, in what quantity, and at what frequency. While one might expect grocery chains to use a reliable algorithm to determine which products will fare best on shelves, these gatekeepers often make decisions based on the crucial relationship forged between client and buyer. This camaraderie, the client’s ability to highlight differentiating features of their product, and even the restaurant where the business dinner takes place can all sway purchasing decisions. The gatekeeper is a powerful stakeholder in this context and can have a profound influence on a supplier’s brand. Roger recounted an instance when a purchaser told him that while his grocery chain had once regarded Three Thieves as a cutting edge brand, a lack of rebranding efforts had rendered their products outdated. In a successful response, Three Thieves conducted a branding overhaul and regained the favor of this key buyer.

At this early stage in our adventure, we’ve learned that—as is typically the case in science—the answer to our question about how producers make supply chain decisions depends. It depends on product, scale, metrics of success, and several other factors. Some decisions are based on models and economic analysis while others are more grounded in personal experience and preference. We look forward to speaking with the rest of our gracious interviewees over the course of the semester to learn more about the tools and motivations people use to make discerning production decisions. We’re indebted to the professors and faculty who’ve poured their energy into honing our technical skills and expanding our intellectual curiosities, and we hope that this opportunity helps bridge our academic lives with the professional endeavors we pursue after graduation.

Christina Skonberg is a 2nd year AFE student from Berkeley, CA who is trying to embrace the New England winter but couldn’t resist smuggling a suitcase full of Californian produce back to Boston in January. Krissy Scommegna is also a 2nd year AFE student who was happy to see her home in Boonville, CA in its rainy glory in January, even if it meant digging trenches against flooding and building fires in the wood stove to stay warm. Second-year AFE student Carrie DeWitt will also be participating in this directed study, but was unable to attend meetings in California in January. Stay tuned for more information about their end of semester presentation on Best Practices in Supply Chain Management, coming in May.

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