Endless In-Store Sampling RecipesAngel Sweet

An Evidence-Based Evolution

An Evidence-Based Evolution

It’s the year 1848. The date is January 24.

James Marshall, a carpenter hired to build a water-powered sawmill for settler John Sutter, heads out to do a routine inspection, only to spot gleaming flakes of gold glinting through the loose dirt and gravel left behind from the water he had diverted the night before. From there, news of his discovery spreads like wildfire across the country, sparking the start of the Gold Rush—a legendary event that would bring miners from across the world in search of fortune.

What does this have to do with the produce industry? For starters, the West Coast may not have become the agricultural hub it is known as today without these 49ers flocking to the region.

Flash forward to 2022, and there are new miners on the scene, this time staking their claim in Washington: FirstFruits Farms. And just like the pioneers of yesteryear, they are helping shift the course of the industry. However, instead of picks, shovels, and gold pans, the produce maven uses data science and analytics to excavate crucial insights that could spur innovative solutions for its buy-side partners.

“It all starts with data,” Aleisha Loveluck, Data Science Architect, explains as she begins to break down the concept of data science and how the apple supplier uses the knowledge it gleans from the samples. “First, we locate the necessary information and ensure it’s all accurate, current, and free of anomalies. Next, we go data mining by combing through the figures looking for key insights, important correlations, and trends that help drive business goals. Once we strike data gold, our team transforms the raw numbers into a simple, accessible concept using visualizations, presentations, apps, and reports that clearly illustrate the importance of our findings.”

Put that way, data mining sounds simple, but in fact, it is far more intricate than it appears. Behind each detail is a glimpse into the behaviors and patterns of consumers which must be examined and dissected by knowledgeable minds so the information can be best used to drive the apple category—and the industry—forward.

Enter FirstFruits’ data analytics, marketing, and sales teams, who put their heads together to create the most effective solutions for the company and its customers.

“Through the combined experience and skills our teams bring together, we can comprehend the mass amount of data in the market and present it in a user-friendly and easily accessible way to our retail partners,” says Aimee Peters, West Coast Business Development Manager. “We pride ourselves on being able to draw impactful insights with solutions and suggestions to grow the category. We don’t want to point out problems or potential issues; we want to come to the table with tailored solutions and guidance that fit our partners’ needs. We do this without bias, so even if it does not directly benefit us at the time, it adds value to the apple category.”

While technology and the intelligence it can provide serves as a point of contention for some, data science is becoming essential as the produce market continuously shifts. The concept has become especially valuable in light of challenges created by COVID-19, port congestion, inflation, and other world events that have drastically shifted shopping behaviors. To put it simply, consumers are evolving, and as an industry, we need to evolve with them. FirstFruits is willing to take the first steps alongside those it serves.

If we fail to look toward the future, we can easily fall behind. By embracing data-driven decision- making, we’re future-proofing our business and adding additional tools that benefit our customers.

Aleisha Loveluck, Data Science Architect, FirstFruits Farms

“If we fail to look toward the future, we can easily fall behind,” Aleisha offers. “By embracing data-driven decision-making, we’re future-proofing our business and adding additional tools that benefit our customers. Any of our competitors can sell our customers apples. We achieve this same feat while also providing partnership, data-driven insights, and evidence-based strategies that help our customers grow their businesses.”

Backing up Aleisha’s sentiments, Aimee details how vital data is to category management—something that has become invaluable to FirstFruits as a differentiator from its competitors and a practice essential to its customers.

“As data science has been introduced to the produce industry, there is so much information available, making category management necessary,” adds Aimee. “As an industry, our goal should be to utilize the data to create intentional approaches, rather than operating off of emotions or feelings. These strategies lead to a discussion that can ultimately guide both our partners and our team to increase profitability and cost efficiency. In today’s world, especially, our industry has experienced turbulence from the pandemic, and it’s no secret that we are currently in an inflationary period. Category management is more important than ever as retail customers are looking for solutions from us to help find their footing following such events.”

Placing such weight in data mining and category management, FirstFruits has begun to shift its corporate culture. Now, data informs all the company’s critical decisions, including growing practices, shipping procedures, pricing strategies, consumer awareness initiatives, sustainability, and promotions, to name a few. The supplier is moving past what Aleisha calls “gut feelings and guesswork” into what she has deemed “an evidence-based evolution.”

“Over the past few years, we’ve grown from a simple data analytics department to a full-fledged data science center of excellence. We’ve always had brilliant minds spread throughout our company, but now we’re bringing them together to share that knowledge company-wide,” she imparts. “We embrace cutting-edge technology physically at the farm and virtually in distributed computing infrastructure. We have the knowledge and the means to be true produce innovators.”

To further bolster FirstFruits’ data science and analytics capabilities, the supplier recently launched its Data Science Center of Excellence. This will help the team integrate multi-departmental knowledge and tools company-wide, ensuring FirstFruits can provide the most value to those it serves.

The program includes 10 crucial employees who all serve different functions, but ultimately, their work impacts the entire company.

...We look forward to developing and implementing an educational program that aims to equip every employee at FirstFruits with the knowledge to utilize category management tools and insights in a way that strengthens our company and retailer relationships.

Emily Autry, Marketing Manager, FirstFruits Farms

Overall, they are dedicated to making change for the organization and beyond, beginning with the utilization of data science, but extending to other facets of its operations starting with the composition of the team, which is half women. This is especially impactful when considering the push for once male-dominated fields like science, technology, sales, and business to be more inclusive. These women include Aleisha; Aimee; Emily Autrey, Marketing Manager; Melissa Hunter, Data Analyst; and Sara Palmisano, East Coast Business Development Manager, all of whom will use their skills to grow the program and share knowledge with the rest of the FirstFruits associates.

“As the Data Science Center of Excellence evolves, we look forward to developing and implementing an educational program that aims to equip every employee at FirstFruits with the knowledge to utilize category management tools and insights in a way that strengthens our company and retailer relationships,” states Emily. “Employees at every level and across all functions will be able to experience and understand the context category management provides for their roles in the company.”

Looking into the future, the grower will combine the resources of its marketing department and sales office with its farm on a deeper level than ever before. This integration will help increase the information flow between departments, streamlining its operations and redefining the customer partnership experience.

“The beauty of FirstFruits is that we are a vertically integrated, single-grower system which allows us to extend our reach efficiently across the company when implementing initiatives such as this,” adds Emily. “We especially look forward to making our retail partners’ jobs easier than ever. Looking at the big picture, we have our eyes and minds set on leading innovation of category management in fresh produce and shaping how suppliers and retailers come together in partnership.”

All in all, just like the gold miners that packed up their wagons and headed for the West Coast almost two centuries ago, the team at FirstFruits is striking out in search of something bigger: change. While those panning in streams long ago were looking for riches to better their lives, FirstFruits is looking to inspire industry growth. The lesson we can learn from either miners remains the same, even all these years later…

Take a risk, stake a claim, and you can find gold. 

An Evidence-Based Evolution