Monday, June 6, 2016

Over half a century ago in Germany: an UBER for plums, apples, berries

In the past months, several media reports wrote about start-ups that work on aspects of sustainable food production for the still growing human population.

One such start-up is German company FoPo, which aims to collect batches of fast perishing fruit and vegetables and freeze dry them to vastly extend their usable life. Sounds a bit like a civilian version of freeze dried MREs (the military rations that came after canned C rats).

The funny thing is, the concept is old.

And it has a long way ahead to become as pervasive as the old system.

We came across the phenomenon after we became curious about some lone apple trees on the edge of old roads in our German hill country.  These were older trees, unmaintained, not in good shape - one was split apart, the top resting on the ground, precariously attached to the trunk by just one small piece of living tissue.

Some research and some conversations with the locals later, we had rediscovered how previous generations lived.

Before mechanization of farming, fruit trees in meadows were common around here.

Vertical farming.

Mechanization turned the useful convenient trees into obstacles to productivity and progress, so they were chopped down. Except trees that sat close to roads, or on slopes tractors could not reach. Over time, brush and forest trees inched closer and many of the remaining old fruit trees were lost.

Farmers harvested their trees, they made cider out of cider apples, they stored other apples for the winter, or they would take a cart full to a small mill that made juice.

But they also sold fruit to the system we called "UBER for plums". Manufacturers based in cities to the north and the south had a large crowdsourced collection system set up that worked as follows.

Just before harvest time, they sent trucks with empty crates to collection agents in the villages. Usually, a farmer was the collection agent. Villagers would arrive and pick up as many crates as they thought they could deliver. Of course, they kept as much as they needed for their own purposes and just sold off the rest this way.

The villagers would harvest the fruit and take the crates to the collection point, where the agent checked the quality, weighed the fruit and paid cash.

A day or two later, a truck would pick up the harvest. Depending on the village, this cycle would repeat several times for different fruits and berries.

Are they still doing this, we wanted to know?

No, this system faded away in the late 1960s or in the 1970s when so many trees had been lost that it became a losing proposition for processors, and when it became cheaper to import fruit from other European countries.

As we said earlier, there are still trees around, so maybe FoPo or someone else could help save them or even revive this sustainable tradition because much of the fruit in orchards close to houses also goes to waste today. We have seen tons of unwanted apples and other fruit, and we grab buckets from a neighbor who doesn't want them.

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