The Future of Fragrance Farming July 29, 2019
INSTAGRAMMABLE, CIRCULAR AND IN THE CLOUD
Summary: Consumer fragrance culture is shape-shifting at a faster rate than ever before, recruiting increasingly diverse and open-minded users who are being catered for by new business models, communication tactics and scent profiles. This article proposes how current trends may affect the future of fragrance farming.
The fate of perfumery plant farming is certainly not a separate issue to the future of fragrance development itself – technological advancements and creative zeitgeists within the houses and brands will no doubt push and pull the focus and output of farmers via intensifying consumer appetite for transparency and a closer connection to products’ sources. With the back-end of the supply chain facing brighter spotlight (and scrutiny) than ever before, indications suggest that the farmer of tomorrow will gain considerable power, influence and licence within the purchasing ecosystem.
As a result, the evolution of fragrance agriculture will rely on shrewd integration of digital initiatives and authentic policy-making that listens more closely to end-user desires than is customary today as well as louder voices from cooperatives and partnerships across the sector that boldly elucidate what quality means, how to achieve it, and why paying more for it can benefit all those involved in production. This genre of strategy, promoting the humanistic value of the industry and championing efficiency, will be critical in alleviating valid anxieties over global land mismanagement and climate change doomsdays. Given that the world’s population is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050 (up from 7.4 billion in 2016), and current predictions that farmers must increase food production by 70 percent compared to 2007 levels to balance birth rates, governments will be much stricter on land use legislation in an attempt to maximise agriculture’s output and increase its global GDP from the 3 percent it sits at today.
To stay ahead of the curve, and ensure industry innovation moves faster than civic regulation, we make three fragrance trend predictions and review their potential effects on the future of perfumery plant farming.
PREDICTION #1: SOURCE CULTURE GAINS GROUND
Transparency of material derivation and humility in execution were two of the key philosophies that anchored niche perfumery’s genesis, presenting juices that were intended to give consumers a more intimate understanding of their construction through simple (often solinote) accords and championing key materials umbrellaed under modest storylines. As this trope developed from the 1980s to today, the buck has been pushed further and further down the supply chain, apexing in new brands such as London-based Ostens who showcase ‘Préparations’ – single oil compositions marked with the country of origin, supplier and concentration on each bottle. With cynicism towards institutional knowledge only growing across all cultural spectrums, and the craft movement still on the rise, it is likely that public interest in the originary sources of products, materials and ideas will result in ever-more brands that put the farmer at the heart of their offerings and marketing.
EFFECT #1: FARMERS WIN POWER AND SPOTLIGHT
A sensible assumption would be that farming operations and the companies tied closely to them will therefore gain greater public recognition and sway over what shape their products end up in on the shelves and in negotiations. If the craft and know-how of traditional farming is valued higher than big industry then, in the era of Instagram-reporting, farms may also come under higher demands for consumable, intimate content to satisfy end users whose purchase was as much governed by the ideals of happy sun-kissed gardeners as genuinely doing good in local communities.
The flower industry presents a relevant parallel, overcoming recent falls in trade by focusing “on the DIY aspect … by zeroing in on the experience, turning the customer into a creator, not just a mindless consumer. A creator who posts their work on Instagram”, in the words of journalist Katy Kelleher.ii By opening up harvesting sites in the same way that many flower fields attract amateur photographers, perfume agriculture would be able to retain the same sentiment of being “tactile … of creating and making something” that Brigid Stevens, VP of flower retailer The Bouqs, believes makes their products so special.iii Furthermore, a transformation of farming sites into ‘inspiration hubs’, giving insight into the beauty of both natural and human processes in the product lifecycle by allowing the public greater access, would ensure farmers are at the forefront of people’s mind when discussing craft, skill and quality in the fragrance industry.
Aspirations of optimising public appreciation for local on-farm skills face a roadblock when reviewing current macro-trends in farm ownership. Writer Sara Wyant tells us that in the USA “since the 1930s, the number of farms has declined, the average size has increased, and the amount of farmland in agriculture has remained generally flat. Of the 2.1 million farms in the last Census of Agriculture, only about 15 percent are at-scale production farms, and they control 80 percent of the acres”, confirmed by Brett Sciotto, CEO of Aimpoint Research, later in the same article through his prediction that “by 2040, 5 percent of farms will produce more than 75 percent of the agricultural output … Mid-size farms are under the most financial pressure and are declining the quickest as they get bought up by larger operations”.
In Sciotto’s opinion, “the farmer seems to be losing more and more control” despite the fact that the US has seen a 61 percent increase in small farms from 1992 to 2012, echoed by David Widmar, agricultural economist at Purdue University, through his concern that “for the first time, growers who are older than 65 outnumber farmers who are younger than 45 … When older growers exit the business, there are fewer younger growers to replace them. As a result, farm consolidation will be significant and quick. The consolidation will change farm dynamics to larger, more managerial complexities”. Perhaps a more socially minded, digitally actioned communications strategy that treats farms as store fronts, akin to the way consumer-facing brands present themselves to the public, can save mid and small-size plots from consolidation and create a new USP (unique selling point) that larger corporates will not be able to compete with.
PREDICTION #2: SUSTAINABILITY BECOMES A REQUIREMENT NOT A CHOICE
What is clear from the explosion of new companies in fashion, beauty, food and design that are experimenting with innovative ways to minimise environmental impact is that sustainability matters to today’s consumer base. The obvious next step, evident in Gen Z buying patterns in particular, is a growing consumer demographic that will actively not buy from brands that do not transparently demonstrate their commitment to eco-friendly processes and goals. Whilst perfumery has been slow to catch on due to a complicated supply chain, new brand Sana Jardin is a best-in-class example, describing itself as ‘the world’s first socially conscious, luxury fragrance house’ and flagshipping ‘The Orange Blossom Project’ with agency Nest to help fund training, recycling and business strategy for low-income female farmers in north-west Morocco. Expect sustainability to be a requirement in the future, not just for governments but for consumers, too.
EFFECT #2: GROSS OUTPUT STABILISES, PROFIT MARGINS INCREASE
Not just about ‘doing good’ anymore, being sustainable will also be advantageous for winning new business and retaining clients. In corroboration, world leaders in patchouli production Van Aroma commented that
one of the increasingly important aspects of our product for buyers is for it to be traceable and sustainably sourced. Our partners are becoming increasingly conscious about where naturals come from, who they affect, and if the impact is a positive one or not. This is a move towards progress overall, as it has pushed our industry from being one of simple commodity trade to one where there is a genuine interest in understanding and impacting society.
That said, implementing sustainability changes, especially for the first time within an organisation, is never easy and can encounter multiple roadblocks. Aaron Pollack, CEO of Golden Grove Naturals in Australia, identifies three main themes that inhibit agricultural enterprises from being more forthcoming in their sustainability initiatives: “money … the costs to undertake practical research and development; equipment and techniques … as emerging technology can also be costly to establish and slow to transfer to our industry; and commitment and support given that large global businesses often talk of sustainable practices yet often implement restrictive procedures and strict financial terms”. With further evidence, the Co-founder of the New York-based National Young Farmers Associations Lindsey Lusher Shute believes that.
one of the most difficult issues for our farmers is land ownership. Without land ownershipvery few of them can make investments into farm infrastructure and conservation that could adequately address the global crisis of biodiversity … First and foremost, farmers need to own land. After that, they need low-interest loans or grants to support the cost and a consumer who is willing to pay a little more for [products] grown with practices that support a healthy ecosystem.
“A good farmer has got to be a good risk manager … this monoculture agriculture that we tend to have had is so vulnerable to weather changes and climate and pests”.
Another big fear in changing to more sustainable processes, including going organic, investing inbiodiversity, and recycling resources, lies in the potential for system costs to outweigh financial gains, even once established. Whilst gross output may stay steady or even experience a slight decline before best practices are learnt, profit under sustainability initiatives has the potential to dramatically increase given the premium that society is willing to pay for fully traceable, earnest, chemical-free products. South Dakota farmer Will Ortman’s story of shifting to organic is exemplary, with the farmer concluding that “after pushing the numbers on this organic was going to work better economically because of the organic price premiums. This wasn’t rooted in some kind of dream or wish or some philosophy; it really did start with economics”.vii A large part of his success also lay in promoting biodiversity for soil enrichment, Ortman adding that, for him, biodiversity is “exactly like a stock portfolio”, an idea echoed by Dan Glickman, US Secretary of Agriculture 1995 – 2001, in a 2017 interview with his statement that “a good farmer has got to be a good risk manager … this monoculture agriculture that we tend to have had is so vulnerable to weather changes and climate and pests”.
Whilst the inevitable shift to sustainability policies may at first appear daunting, agricultural policy experts Daniel Moss and Mark Bittman reminded us in a New York Times article published last year that “it’s [agriculture is] an industry that would have us believe that we need rocket science to grow a carrot. Agroecology isn’t rocket science. It simply takes full advantage of nature’s assets, drawn from the farm itself and surrounding ecosystems.” In accordance, agricultural researchers Colin Anderson and Michel Pimbert believe that agroecological innovations are the solution to the sustainability problem, “promot[ing] circular systems that involve recycling, reuse and combining resources to reduce dependency on external inputs, in particular fossil fuels. They mimic natural cycles and the functional diversity of natural ecosystems” whilst crucially using lost-cost or free natural materials in and around farms that allow for inexpensive autonomous action and do not involve high tech.
PREDICTION #3: AVANT-GARDE PERFUMES BECOME MAINSTREAM
The willingness to include unusual accords, accents and signatures in fine fragrance development over the past decade was a response to a generation that not only placed higher value on sensory experiences but also was obsessed with uniqueness and curating personal creativity, successfully exploited by brands such as Le Labo and Byredo. Whereas luxury in the past was signified by blemish-free uniformity, the luxury of tomorrow will expand on today’s lust for craft culture by celebrating the oddities, individuality and strangeness within both individual essential oils and finished scents, revering distinct and away-from-the-norm oil profiles in the same manner as genres of wine.
EFFECT #3: AGRONOMICAL STRATEGY DRIVEN BY TECH, MANAGED BY PEOPLE
Within this context, growers should aim to find a USP within the odour profile of their oil and maximise it to the greatest possible extent via agronomic manipulation to achieve a product with real personality. There is no doubt that smart technology will be part of the solution to emphasise distinct essential oil odour profiles more clearly by optimising growing conditions for desired olfactory effects. Pollack agrees that “the future of farming will include a lot of technology to undertake diagnostics and data collection such as the use of drones and robotics to data mine the soil, water and plant health for instant analytical infield results” that could exponentially benefit on-site practice as more and more data are collected over the years, with plant-by-plant nanosensors sending live information to farmers’ smart phones, saving time and money.
For The Economist’s Geoffrey Carr, “the job of smart farming, then, is twofold. One is to measure the variables going into the matrix as accurately as is cost-effective. The other is to relieve the farmer of as much of the burden of processing the matrix as he is comfortable with ceding to a machine”, leaving time to potentially focus on more experimental agronomic projects and sustainability ventures.xi Many are banking on a new form of smart agriculture to stimulate growth; according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research report, the agricultural drone industry is predicted to generate 100,000 jobs in the U.S. and $82 billion in economic activity over the next 10 years. However, Pollack is doubtful that we are about to fall into The Matrix: “I am uncertain about whether or not the widespread uptake of technology will minimise the workforce. Farmers and gardeners often speak of the meditative aspect of working closely with nature, soil, water and plants. I would not be surprised if there is a push-back on the continual incorporation of technology over the next 200 years. Farming could be used to maintain an active workforce as populations continue to increase”. Along a similar vein, and in antithesis to the hype surrounding digital integration on farmland, Jim Hughes from Virginia-based technology firm Commonwealth Computer Research suggests that “data analytics-powered farming has a lot of potential … but we don’t know yet if it will help us farm 5 or 50 percent better”.
Even if robot swarms and cloud brains do have a noticeable effect on the cosmetics of farming sites over the next century, it is important to remember that perfumery plants are not the same as food crops and not nearly as much can be mechanised, not forgetting that the concepts of quality, taste and balance in scent are not driven by necessity but by the subjective emotions inherent to identity projection, meaning people will likely be at the heart of fragrance agriculture for a long time. In addition, whilst human input may not be required for the interpretation of digital data, it is most certainly needed in the most human aspect of decision-making – implementation. How, when and why practices are changed, such as shifting to circular sustainability frameworks, will not be made by machines but by people. First and foremost, what the industry really needs right now is more agronomy students becoming experts in niche fields to drive focused innovation and expand on the little literature available on perfumery plant lifecycles and how to manipulate them.
Providing an optimistic outlook, Syngenta reports that “the United States Department of Agriculture now lists another 140 sustainable agriculture offerings at colleges and universities across the U.S. — including online courses, post-grad classes, certificates and workshops … a reflection of increasing millennial interest in building healthier and more holistic … systems”, whilst Sara Wyant notes that the “USDA says nearly 69 percent of young farmers will have college degrees”. Perhaps one answer is to have more machines calling the shots on what we do in the soil, but run farms a little bit like the R&D centres at experimental restaurants such as the famous elBulli that stood in Catalonia or Mugaritz in San Sebastian, ensuring any jobs compromised by artificial intelligence are reassigned creative roles dedicated to sustainability, marketing and social inclusion, Instagramming about the next big trends in essential oils, working alongside guest researchers and encouraging consumers to visit the site to experience first-hand the time, love and craftsmanship inherent to essential oil production.