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Farmer keeps track of every last strawberry for quality control

Third-generation Plant City strawberry farmer Gary Wishnatzki worried last summer when a salmonella outbreak blindsided Florida's tomato industry. Ultimately, the bacteria was not found on Florida tomatoes, but the industry suffered. He knew the strawberry business could be vulnerable in similar circumstances.

Wishnatzki was also frustrated that he received so little input from consumers of his produce. When he did, he never knew which strawberries or farms deserved the praise or criticism.

So the head of Wishnatzki Farms did something about it.

With his computer expert, Minor Bolanos, Wishnatzki came up with a bar-code system dubbed "FreshQC" that lets him track when, where and what variety of strawberries are picked, and who picked them.

In addition, Wishnatzki trained his pickers to place a yellow label atop each of the clear plastic "clamshell" packages of his strawberries sold in supermarkets. The label says, "How's my picking?" and includes a 16-digit number and the FreshQC.com Web address. Once those numbers are entered online, Wishnatzki can match the exact clamshell in his records, while the consumer answers a short opinion survey.

At first, Wishnatzki wanted a better way to protect his crops in the event of some public health problem. So-called traceback systems already exist that help farmers track the source of their crops, but Wishnatzki wanted something more useful.

He wanted to communicate directly with people buying his produce. "It's not just about food safety but food quality," he says.

In past strawberry seasons, Wishnatzki, 53, might hear from 40 consumers who found the Wishnatzki Web site so that they could compliment or, on occasion, complain about the strawberries.

Since FreshQC kicked off in December, Wishnatzki has received 714 comments.

Wishnatzki Farms sells strawberries under its own name but also under the Strawberry Joe, Clear Choice Organic and even the Green Giant brand in grocery stores stretching from Publix in Florida and Stop and Shop in New England to Heinen's in Ohio and Loblaws in Canada.

Most of the hundreds of comments I saw that Wishnatzki's received since late December are glowing. That lets Wishnatzki share feedback with his independent growers and, once the data base grows, reward specific pickers for superior work.

Wishnatzki started up FreshQC (QC stands for "quality control") in his fields but also demonstrates his system at agricultural shows. He hopes to license FreshQC to other strawberry farmers via a tech subsidiary called Virtual One. He'll use FreshQC again when the fields shift to growing melons.

FreshQC, says Wishnatzki, is "a powerful system to motivate our growers and pickers to do a good job."

Wishnatzki may not be thrilled to know a California farmer is starting something similar to the FreshQC system.

Driscoll's in Watsonville, Calif., says by next year it will put HarvestMark labels on clamshells of strawberries along with a 16-digit code and a consumer Web site.

Wishnatzki says HarvestMark does not trace back to the individual picker and is "not 100 percent accurate."

Let the competition begin.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Farmer keeps track of every last strawberry for quality control 02/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 2:45pm]
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