• John Ennis

Amy Bowen - Harvesting Ideas


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Amy Bowen is director of consumer insights at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, where she leads a group of industry experts in sensory and consumer science with backgrounds in biology, food science, psychology, oenology, and culinary arts to offer contract and collaborative research services.


Amy’s research focuses on understanding the drivers that impact consumer preference and choice for horticultural products to create value-added results that inform breeding program selections, brand development, new variety introductions, and commercialization.


Amy has a PhD in Biological Sciences with a specialization in Plant Science, Oenology and Viticulture from Brock University. She is also a certified sommelier through the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers.


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Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)


John: Amy, welcome to the show.


Amy: Thank you, John. I'm happy to be here.


John: Thanks a lot for being here. It's a pleasure. So, yeah, one of the things I really like about this job, if I could call it that and this podcast is talking to people who are applying consumer science ideas, but in kind of ways that are outside of the traditional CPG paradigm. I mean, we get to see all sorts of different walks of life and I think that your story is a really interesting one of how you ended up where you are. So I really kind of want to get into the horticultural applications, but maybe we can get started with your background. You kind of bring our listeners up to speed with your journey, how you got to be where you are, and then we can get into some of the work you could do things like.


Amy: Yeah, for sure. So I think my journey sort of similar to a lot of people that are in the field of sensory science that I've talked to in the past is that I kind of, you know, happened into it. So basically I did my undergrad in biological sciences looking at molecular biology and genetics wasn't really interested in that. Trying to figure out what was next. So work in the service industry thought wine was pretty cool and was a very interesting topic. My parents pushing me to not be a server after being in university, sort of said, you know, you go to school for that and so I found the program at Brock University that was doing analogy and viticulture. And so I applied as a graduate student and I was looking to be actually the viticulture lab where I was looking on ice wine, very Canadian product. And it was all about how when you harvest it, what the crop level the amount of fruit that hangs on the vine. All of that has to do with the quality of the product. So that's what I was working on and it was all sort of very interesting and I went to my first conference and I was super excited that I had all this information around what you did in the vineyard impacted the chemical composition of the wine. And somebody asked me the question, well, which wine tastes better or are there differences in the flavors of these wines? And I thought, oh, wow, that's kind of a more important question. So I came back from the conference and decided that I wanted to incorporate sensory somehow like into my project. And then look at sort of how what you do in the vineyard impacts the chemical composition and then how that relates to how people perceive differences and if it actually changes the flavor profile of the wine. From there, so I was lucky enough that Isabella Lesschaeve, who was on your podcast previously was approx so she helped me out of taking me into the field of sensory science and exposing me to that, as well as there was an undergraduate slash graduate course taught by Gary Pickering that I was able to to take. And I just kind of fell in love with sensory science and wanted to incorporate that more and more and really felt that was really important because so much in horticulture is you're looking at how what you do in the field impacts the yield or the disease resistance. But they're consumer products. You know, people want to make wine from it. And you're selling a wine that people like better than another wine or people you're growing and you're growing an apple. The ultimate goal of the apple is for a consumer to buy it and consume it and want to go and buy it again. And so you've got you start to see similar trends sort of throughout. So that's where I sort of saw the applications of it. So when I finished my PhD, I wanted to get more exposure in the consumer aspect of it and how you can integrate the sensory science skills into understanding consumer behavior, preference drivers, that whole aspect of things. And so that's how I ended up at Vineland is started off as a postdoc and just kind of, you know, sort of through hard work and opportunity, was able to sort of move up into the role that I'm doing now where I work on a lot of diverse products and sort of the edible and non-edible side of horticulture. Bringing the background that I have from plant biology really helps along with my knowledge around sort of sensory science and consumer behaviour, consumer science, to kind of bring all those skills together in the work I do now in Vineland.


John: That's fascinating. So you got interested in consumer and sensory science while you're still working in your PhD? Is that correct?


Amy: Yes.


John: So you're working on the problem originally of how the different decisions that are made prior to the same wine being made impact the taste of the wine. But then the end fight for you was that at some point somebody's going to drink wine. I suppose that perspective of making wine for consumers, it does seem a little at odds with at least what I'm think of the tradition of winemaking, were usually you have some sort of you know, I mean, I would really call it the golden tongue. Maybe the golden tongue is from CPG world, but there would be, you know, someone who is the winemaker. It's going to make wine according to her/his ideas about what the wine should taste like. So is that been the challenge for you? I mean, is that true that wine culture tends to be kind of expert driven or do you find that the wine community is fairly accepting of this idea of consumer research? Is there a tension there between a field that might be kind of expert dominated versus some of these newer ideas of doing consumer research? And how is that playing out in practice? Amy: Yeah, so definitely there is a disconnect in sort of a very interesting kind of way of looking at. So wine, especially, you know as a very consumer driven product. If you think about it, you know, people go out, they want their glass of wine at the restaurant. Through covid, everybody's been drinking more wine. Wine sales have been going up, if you look at all of that. For bottle shows that it's a consumer beverage. But it's also an art, right? It's sort of people, so that's where the expert side of it comes in is thinking of art form that history, that sort of sense of place, the practices in production and all of that that go into it. And those are going to be regional as well. But ultimately, like anything, it's a business. Right? And so people need to make money to be able to sustain it. So if you're a very small winery and you're making one specific product and it's a high price point and everybody buys it out and you've got your business model working, then maybe the consumer doesn't matter because it's all just getting sold and it's sort of benefit to everybody. But a lot of wineries don't work that way. Right? So they have different levels and different consumers want different things. So if you look at people that come into the drinking wine, most people don't start coming in and drinking a big heavy tank red wine. They tend to come into something that is sweeter, a fruitier or maybe sort of a lighter profile, often a white wine. So that's where the sensory science of it can really come into understand. What is it that's driving what consumers like? And as a business model if you need to have these different tiers of wine, how do you can you position your product to kind of meet those different needs of it? And I have to say, that's one of the reasons that while I was doing my PhD, I did my certification at the same time because I realized that when you're studying the science of wine from the analogy and viticulture perspective, you're really focusing on the production side of it. But at the same time, you're trying to sell a product and you're trying to have something that people want to make money from. And so it's also a global product. So you have to think of it from that global perspective. So by taking this my course is a way for me to understand wine from the other side of the business, not just from yeast ferments, sugars into alcohol and creates these volatile compounds that then elicit this reaction that produces a fruity note when a consumer tastes it, right? But really thinking of it from that sort of flipping the perspective over of what does that hold the big picture look like? So if you're looking at sort of a product that grows in the field to something that's being purchased by somebody in a store, what does that whole perspective look like? And I think that sensory and consumer science really is a key element in understanding all of those different pieces in there and understanding how an expert views it and describes it and talks about it versus how the layperson views it talks about it and describes it, because that's also can be very very different.


John: Now that's fascinating. Reminds me a little bit of the world of fine fragrance in that you have perfumers, right? You're kind of the high end, that's the art side. There's this middle ground where you've got the expert panel and then, of course, the consumer and you have their language which may or may not relate to the way the expert panel or the way that the perfumers describe the fragrance in your cases which is the wine. Yeah that's fascinating. So what are the leverage that you're able to control? I suppose that you can, I mean, there's the breeding, right? There's the way they grip to ground, there's choices that are made, I suppose, during the maturation process and then finally, I guess you can blend that different wine. So what are the things that you're focused on in terms of if there's some target that you're trying to kind of put it in CPG language and you've got maybe some profile that you're trying to deliver, what are the things that you can change? What are the things that you typically find yourself manipulating in your effort to hit certain targets?

Amy: Yes, that's probably the easiest to sort of address that into two perspective. So one is, if you think of wine, it's actually pretty challenging because wine is so ingrained in history and so if you think of Europe especially, right? Specific regions are only allowed to grow specific group varieties. So it's hard to breed in a new variety because it's not allowed to go into the wines from those regions. So those are sort of considerations that have to come in. Also, when you think of wine, you'll talk to someone and say they might not know very much about wine at all. But you say, what do you like to drink? I like Chardonnay. I like Merlot. They're telling you a variety. They're telling you a specific. So what's going to be hard then to sort of change that? Because that's already something that it's a brand, right? Look, if you think of it from the most elemental perspective, that's a brand. So that's where you're working at Vineland and working on that sort of moving out of just kind of grape and wine and moving into sort of a broader spectrum of it is when you say look at something like apples or peaches or pears, you've got all this new sort of flexibility in terms of how you can look at it, because you can't think of it from that perspective of what's that target. So you can say, okay, people like peaches that have this flavor profile but people don't know that throughout a growing season you might have actually five different varieties of peaches that fill in that flavor profile because some ripen early, some ripen in the middle of the season and some ripe at the end of the season because we don't call a name, we call it like a peach. Right? So we're able to fill that gap. And so that's we're using we can identify through sensory science. Okay, what's the sweetness level? What's the firmness? What's the acidity? What are the flavor profiles? What peaches are similar to this benchmark variety so that we can fill that production cycle and provide consumers with high quality peaches sort of throughout that time. We started naming all the peaches. Right? Then it changes because then, you know, we'll peach variety A only lasts for two weeks at the beginning of August, and then you move into all these different varieties. And so they're looking at it from a different perspective. So I think, in terms of a lot of the work we do at Vineland, it's understanding that people don't sort of realize the level of expert that comes in and all the different fruits and vegetables that grow out to be sort of the fresh produce that you go and find at the grocery store. And so understanding all the different variables and how using the tools of understanding kind of those intrinsic attributes of the product can help inform kind of very early on whether it's breeding targets or filling a gap in terms of the production cycle or reintroducing sort of a new variety onto the market as the next new fruit type thing or vegetable.


John: It's interesting because listening to you, I realized just how ignorant I am of the foods that I eat every day. You know that we get into apples and I don't even know what varieties of apple. I mean, I know basic things like, okay, but I mean, is this a challenge finding kind of consumer ignorance? How much of your job is about educating consumers versus trying to meet their needs, would you say, I mean, is there an education piece to all of this?

Amy: Well, I don't know. I like to talk about it as we can inform the consumers. Right? Because you can't educate someone that doesn't want to learn or that stuck in their own perspective. So I think when we say that people are ignorant or need to be educated, I think we're looking at it from the expert perspective because there's a lot of things I know nothing about. And then if I were to talk to someone that was new a lot about that, like, how does she not know that right? Well, I think we just have to think of it, that we all come from kind of different perspective and so a lot of people are just thinking about fruits and vegetables as those healthy things that those healthy things that we eat, that we should eat more of that we need to go to the grocery store and find. So that's part of it. But I think it's important for people to understand the process. So one of the things I always talk about is we say, why are we using sensory and consumer science to help out our apple breeding program at Vineland? Well, because it typically takes 20 years to get a new variety from the time it was crossed until the time it actually reaches the market. And so if you think of how long that production cycle is and how long that takes, if you don't know what your targets are, you know, in kind of year one or two that you're trying to reach 20 years out, then you're putting a lot of time and effort and resources into producing something that you might get to your 15 and then do the sensory evaluation and find out people don't like it or or find that it's very bitter or something. Because as you talk about it, the breeder could be the expert and have their palate that they are putting their preferences on what they move through their program. And so, again, it's using all those like objective, unbiased approaches that we learn to apply to these processes that we can say that, yes, it has to have the right yield. Yes, it has to have the right disease resistance. Yes, it has to have X, Y and Z other checkboxes. But it also has to have the right sweetness or the right texture or the right color or whatever it is that's going to be important and that we can test now that are going to be things because we're screening thousands of apples and getting rid of most of them. So shouldn't we also be looking at some of those sensory properties as kind of key things that we're using to kind of pull things along?


John: Right. And does it take 20 years because you start with a very large number or what is the reason it takes so long?


Amy: It's mostly the biology of the fruit because it's cycles. Right? So it's a perennial crop. So you have to you know, once you've sort of planted it and the plant starts growing, it's three to five years before it produces its first fruit. And then to wait five years so you can get any fruit off of the tree and then you need a couple of years to test that fruit to make sure that it's going to meet sort of all the kind of agronomic criteria that you need. And then that's one tree. You know, typically that's not enough to release for commercialization. So now we have to ramp it up to, say, a next orchard and you have to start that cycle over. And then it goes for a third stage before it goes up to the growers to test that sort of a larger scale. And then once the varieties been selected then you have to ramp it up to hundreds of thousands of trees that need to go on the ground to come into commercial production and so that's where the timelines just sort of sneak up. Right? And you get a bad year. You don't get fruit. Well, that just adds a year sort of onto your timeline. So it just to me makes sense that you look early on at bringing in the flavor profile, the taste, the appearance and all these things that are so important that people talk about. At that end, you just see this new apple like it grows so well in a field. Like consumers never say that, right? But they'll say, have you seen this new apple? Man, it tastes fantastic. I love the flavor. I love the texture. It's so different than anything else I've tried. So we're trying to just bring that in early on and create that as part of our value proposition from our breeding programs.


John: Right. That's fascinating. You have to forgive my ignorance. I mean, I really am so. It's amazing how much goes on in the background. You go to the grocery store and there's some apples, you don't understand that, I think I see it with consumer products that I usually work, you know, on food beverage, whatever, processed food but it's fascinating how the same thing is happening in viticulture world. So let me ask you about, one of the reasons that I really wanted you to be on the show, and I think you are taking a real data driven kind of approach to your breeding program and to your efforts to satisfy the consumer. So can you talk a little bit about how you all are using data, what sort of data are informing your decisions, how you're starting to implement, you know, some ideas from machine learning? I mean, I think it's really high temperature up to. So if you could just describe a little bit of your program and how you embrace the use of data?


Amy: Yes. So at Vineland Research and Innovation, we've got several different breeding program. So like apples and tomatoes are probably our two biggest one. And so what we've done, tomatoes is like tomato on the vine, green house grown tomatoes, because that's a big industry in our part of the world. So Ontario grows, I think 70 percent of the greenhouse tomatoes that you can go into the US. So it's a big big numbers. And so what we're doing is for our apples, we're looking at fresh market apples that are going to be sort of have that sort of consumer quality that people are looking for, but also have that local adaptation for that grow in our region. So we can not have to have as much sort of import. So it goes to that whole sustainability model. And one of the things we're looking at in our tomato breeding program is one of the things people don't like about greenhouse tomatoes is that there isn't the flavor diversity that there isn't field grown tomatoes. And so we're trying to create tomatoes with different flavor profiles that will satisfy the consumer. And so in forms of doing this, what we've done is we've started off kind of early on in the breeding programs when they started up using sort of the data we collect from our trained sensory panels to become like phenotypic data that we can drive into the breeding programs. So we know that what you perceive when you're sort of tasting a product, whether differences in sweetness, but even differences in texture and differences in the volatiles especially are all been created by the products. So we know that we can take the the sensory information and we can use that to correlate to sort of the biochemical information that the plants are making. So that's sort of a typical connection that a lot of people have done is sensory instrumental analysis. But then the next step we're knowing is that we've got the right sort of set of researchers at Vineland that we can take that one step further and know, okay, so if those volatiles are making this perception, those volatile we're being encoded by something within the plant so we can bring that down to the genetic level and we can use that to create markers that we can then screen the plants. So now the idea would be is that we don't have to wait three to five years for an apple to produce fruit, because as soon as it produces a leaf, we could be able to take a sample and get a DNA and see if it has the right markers for the different traits that we're looking for with flavour being one of them. And so by having multiple years of data and so we've done this through the approach of trained sensory panels, creating the sensory profiles, linking that with consumer data by creating a preference map so then we've got the sort of predictive tool to get a sense of our products fitting into that right sort of consumer space. And those that are running those sort of the volatile profiles, the instrumental profiles on it to be able to bring that back to the genetic markers. So we work with a team of biochemists and bioinformatics and molecular biologists to be able to create that sort of whole loop that we can integrate into our breeding program.


John: Yeah, that's fascinating. So maybe just to take a step back, just to get a sense of the scope that you're working on. So you we talked about grapes and wine and then, of course, you mentioned apples and peaches and the sort of things, we just kind of go through the kind of range of crops that you all are working on. I mean, it's even also flowers? Can you just kind of take us through what are the areas in which you're working?


Amy: Yeah. So within Vineland itself, we have breeding programs and apples, as I mentioned, greenhouse tomatoes, sweet potatoes, as well as landscape roses. And so we've done sensory and consumer work on all of those programs to help understand fruiting targets and inform. And then if we think of products that we've worked on with partners and that sort of go with in the industry, we've worked on everything from like okra and eggplant to potato products, both sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, pears, table grapes, berries like raspberries. We've worked on edible flowers, herbs, worked with the landscape sector in terms of understanding kind of needs within garden centres. So basically, if it falls under the umbrella of horticulture, it's something that we can work on. I think that's one of the things that's really interesting is because we can apply all these different sort of tools and techniques and we can always try sort of new methods to be able to try to kind of answer the questions of what it is that the industry needs to know about the products, but one of the things is it sounds like they're all so different, but one of the things that they all have in common is high natural variability. So that's kind of one of the big things that we're always working with. And that's why we're working with some of these tools and collecting data over multiple years and being able to put these into databases and working with the Vineland informatics helps us to be able to kind of use that and I think that's an area of sort of future growth is is really kind of mining that data to be able to create predictive models about what people perceive and think and consistency in amongst all of that variability that those products have. Because we can't just if someone says it's not sweet enough, we can just go to the kitchen and add more sugar to the next formulation. Right? We have to go back to the fields or the greenhouse and we have to find a new product.


John: So that is all really fascinating because, you know, Agritech is an area that I feel like it's really exploding. So two things I do want to get to before we kind of run out of time here would be robotics. Isn't the case that you all are using robots now for any sort of harvesting, planting, weeding? I mean, that is exactly your area but it is an interesting question to know what other ways while embracing some of the new technologies that are becoming more common.


Amy: Yeah. So that's actually one of the other groups that we have at Vineland. We have kind of five main R&D programs at Vineland Research and one of them is automation. And actually the focus of that group is really to address the labor issues within horticulture because it's typically the biggest expense. And so if you think of labor, what are they spending a lot of their time doing is harvesting and the decisions around harvesting. So we've got several projects that are related to developing, like automated, like harvesting solutions for different crops within it, and then also always looking on a forward thinking and thinking of, okay, if we're developing, say, new apple varieties, well, the future is probably going to be automated apple harvesting. So do we need to consider that when we think of architecture in developing or introducing sort of new varieties that go out there. So, we've got a team of engineers and vision specialist, computer programming, all of that type of thing that are very much working on that. And we, as a Consumer Insights team work in collaboration with them because we can help them to figure out what are their targets, what are the what are the issues, what are the some of the elements that they need to focus on in terms of automation. So, again, that sort of definitely the future and definitely areas that we're working on. So two big systems are working right now are cucumber harvesting. And some of the challenges there are kind of the vision and the sensing of it. So how do you pick a green cucumber against a green background? And what are all the kind of the mechanisms and the algorithms you need to be able to sort of solve that? And then another one and also the size of it. Right? Is picking out the right size because it changes daily as it continues to grow. And that's the same thing with our mushroom harvesting. So, again, what most people don't realise is almost all mushrooms are harvested by hand. And if it's sliced mushroom you're buying, well, that was also chopped by hand and just put in the container because they don't have it's such a perishable product. You know, they need to understand the gripper technologies for the sensing because you can't produce the product or harm it in any way as you're pulling it out. The other thing with mushrooms is it is they grow to sort of the space that they have. So you have to do selective harvesting so that you get the maximum yield and maximum amount of like the number one is the highest qualities and all of those. So all of these considerations have to come and play. So they're developing different tools, potentially kind of ways that this system of how it grows, how to select it, how to make the decisions to be able to harvest it. And then also looking at the the sense of if we're looking at labor replacement, how many hours or how many people and it's not usually labor replacement, it's usually like labor transition. So if they're no longer picking it, what else are they been doing to support the operation? And look at that whole systems approach.


John: Yeah. This is so fascinating. And so kind of along those lines, I did want to ask you, well, it's amazingly Amy this whole conversation has flown by and we can easily keep talking. I mean, I do understand very quickly about cannabis, because that's coming online, I guess, in Canada now, I mean, it's just hard to tell what exactly is the reason is not legal. It seems to me like definitions are a little bit unclear. I mean, I suppose it's another product.


Amy: Yeah. So it's a horticultural product. So it falls under a sort of umbrella of things that we're looking at. It's definitely something that there's a lot of interest. There's a lot of need. In lots of different elements that Vineland involve from new product development to pest and disease control, to automated solutions, as well as understanding the consumer for both the recreational as well as the medical market. So, yeah, it's definitely an area that we're aware of and focused on. We've submitted a license for doing research on the plant production side of cannabis. So we definitely sort of see it as an opportunity. But it's definitely one of those industries that is growing quickly and changing quickly. And so it's kind of figuring out where our spot is where we can sort of support and create impact. Because that's really all the projects we work on, that's sort of what we're doing it. We love doing research, but we don't do the research just for the sake of doing research. We do the research to benefit and create impact for the Canadian horticulture industry and beyond. So we always have to kind of keep that business perspective in our mind when we're thinking of new opportunities we've come into. But yeah, cannabis is definitely on that on that list.


John: And I was actually in the ASTM ambassador to the Cannabis Group. I attended one of the cannabis ASTM meetings and things like these thirty seven or something like that, because they're not really at least when I attended them, they weren't really ready for consumer science tools. They were still at the level of chemical.


Amy: Yeah. So I've been sort of following that as well and I haven't seen much yet from the, yeah I think it is D-37 but they still seem very much focused on the quality control and not so much on the sensory or consumer aspects of it.


John: So one last very quick question, because I should ask you about this comment on this as well, are you interested in breeding or is there a genetic modification, what is the status of like GMO food in Canada?


Amy: No, it's very similar as it is in in the US. At Vineland, we don't do anything through like genetic engineering or anything like that. We do it through what would be traditional breeding methods. The biggest reason for that or not the biggest, but one of the reasons for that definitely is the cost. So it's very expensive to bring like a GA product to commercialization to, first of all, develop it and then get it through all the regulation and approvals to get it to market. And so the cost of that is just prohibitive to us as a not for profit company. So it's not something that we're doing. It's not to say that we're not following the area, sort of looking into it, trying to stay on top of what tools are available in terms of genetic but it's not something that's implemented into any of our breeding programs.


John: Right. That's fascinating. It's so amazing, people have no idea when they went to the grocery store that so much like science and so much knowledge and intelligence has gone into creating these foods. So it's really a great pleasure to have you on the show, Amy. So just to wrap up, we always like to get advice for young sensory scientists and consumer scientists, what advice would you have for someone just starting their career right now?


Amy: I think the biggest thing I always say is just keep your open mind, because you never know where you're going to end up. And if I look at where I started and where I am now, I think that's kind of the biggest lesson. You know, everything you do along the way helps you to gain kind of knowledge, background experience to integrate and build in, because sensory and consumer science is never stand alone. It's always integrated into all of the other components of a company, of a business, of a product to be launched. And so you bring all of that with you so just be open minded and I think be kind of innovative in how you use it. There's no one way you have to do it, right? You've got a huge toolbox that's available to us and so it's listening to all of that to be able to bring solutions and inform through good sensory practices essentially.


John: That's a great advice. If someone wants to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to connect with you?


Amy: So they can reach out through LinkedIn. They can find me on the Vineland Research website. They can always email me as well. So lots of ways but LinkedIn is probably the easiest and the link is on the website, and I think you're going to be providing it as well.


John: Yeah we will. Very easy to talk to you and so I think anyone who connects with you I think will benefit from the conversation. So Amy, this has been a pleasure so thank you very much for being on the show.


Amy: Well, thanks for having me. It's been fun to share what we do at Vineland and all the things that go into horticulture, right? So that you enjoy your fruits and vegetables and flowers and trees.


John: My dad would be proud. He has a degree in horticulture so he will be happy doing this episode I think. Okay, bye Amy.


Amy: Okay, take care.


John: Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling a friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.



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