January, 2009

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

A Tale of Two Stories: The Produce Industry And Its Members

A century and a half ago, in 1859, Charles Dickens famously penned, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Now, at the turn of another new year, his words resonate not only for many in the produce industry but also across business sectors and around the globe, especially if one thinks about the roller coaster of growth and recession we’ve experienced the past 18 months.

Given the economic hardship of 2008, many businesses and individuals alike are facing a grim forecast for the year ahead. However, despite the unavoidable circumstances, I’d like to share with you a silver lining Produce Marketing Association (PMA) has identified in that gray cloud.

Earlier this year, PMA commissioned a nationwide economic impact study to determine the financial impact of the fresh produce and floral industry in the United States. Results of this study, conducted by the renowned Battelle Group, reveal that our industry leaves a large economic and employment footprint on the United States. Together we account for over $275 billion in direct economic output and 1.9 percent of all U.S. employment — a percentage that mirrors the now dire U.S. automotive industry. The total employment impact, including direct and ripple-effect jobs, is more than 2.7 million; and the total economic impact accounts for more than $554 billion when further spending within the economy of workers’ and suppliers’ wages are considered.

Our influence touches all 50 states and every congressional district. In other words, we are a big deal — even if we haven’t always thought of ourselves as an industry that contributes so much to the foundation of the nation’s economy.

Exactly a year ago in January 2008, PMA leadership began working on a new strategic plan to identify the association’s direction moving forward. The resulting plan identified three core values that define our members’ story: courage, character and community.

Our new vision — to strengthen and lead the global produce community — embraces and leverages an expansive global collective to connect members to the best this industry has to offer. Our new mission contains the key elements of why PMA is in business: to connect, inform and deliver business solutions that enhance members’ prosperity.

So when I reflect on today’s produce business climate and the learnings of the economic impact study, I’m again struck by our industry’s tremendous story. As I’ve said before, this story must be told to the public and our government. In the year ahead, you can be certain PMA and its many partners will use this impact data as a starting point to frame the industry’s story of economic relevance, and in turn requesting that public policy adequately supports our industry’s needs — not for an auto-industry-style bailout but for programs and services to increase our competitiveness, enhance public health and allow us to better harness technology for future growth.

And while our association works to tell the industry’s story, members must tell their stories — genuine stories of the courage and character needed to provide nutritious fruits and vegetables in today’s volatile marketplace while also serving as long-term stewards of the land, committed watchmen over food safety and sustainable businesses supporting communities of employees and their local neighborhoods. As I said in my State of the Industry presentation in Orlando at Fresh Summit, people are looking for the face behind the food, the story behind the sustenance, the narrative behind the necessity.

Our produce community has faced major challenges this past year and more face us in the year ahead. These challenges oftentimes appear to compound themselves in the race for solutions. Still, I firmly believe these market disruptions are in one sense the compost nourishing the next generation of success and innovation. Isn’t this nature’s way? We are in this for the long haul, not the quick fix.

During the coming year, PMA members will hear much more about the results of our economic impact research and the analysis that flows from it — results as an industry overall and as states and segments. This valuable information will help PMA members tell their own stories while we share the industry’s story. Because our industry provides the nutrition necessary for consumer health, the employment needed to rebuild and sustain a healthy economy and the commitment necessary to protect and preserve food safety.

Perhaps the biggest deal about being a big deal as an industry is that the best time to change and innovate is when you’re at the top of your game, not when you’re on the way down, fighting for your survival — or as Dickens’ may have called it, our “best of times.”

Here’s to a most promising year ahead in produce!

Be Careful What You Wish For

The industry will, indeed, be looking forward to the new PMA-sponsored research, which attempts to quantify the scope of the industry. The results will be scrutinized carefully because in this type of research, as they say, “The devil is in the details,” particularly in terms of the implications of the research for public policy.

What will policy makers look for when presented with such research? Well, one key question is how much, if any, of that “over $275 billion in direct economic output and 1.9 percent of all U.S. employment” is duplicative with the claims of other industries. In other words, when FMI, the supermarket industry association, or NRA, the restaurant industry association, or associations representing trucking and other industries present their economic impact studies, do we all, in fact, claim the same economic impact and employee count multiple times?

Perhaps the most crucial number is likely to be a subset of the broader number and that is the economic impact of domestically produced fruits and vegetables. More specifically, how that impact would change if these items were imported. In other words, the fact that a lot of people work in produce departments around the country probably has little policy impact because they would likely be doing the same job no matter where the produce was produced.

On the other hand, the economic impact of farm production of fruits and vegetables will be crucial in many policy debates. It looms large as a matter related to immigration and more generally fulfilling the labor needs of agriculture. It also affects environmental policies, including restrictions on carbon outputs and water usage. From local zoning decisions to state policies on taxation of agricultural land to federal transportation spending — all are affected by the economic impact of production agriculture.

Bryan is, of course, quite correct in his explanation that this new economic impact data will be used to buttress the claims made by the industry in pursuit of public policy that the industry would like to see adopted. We would be wise, however, to be careful what we wish for. After all, we just might get it.

It is somewhat ironic, in this context, to note that the produce industry is now as large as the auto industry. The auto industry has for decades tried to influence federal policy in its favor and very often it got its way; yet, today, the industry teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, saved by a federal bailout.

One reason for this is that the very prominence of the industry led to all kinds of regulation, from state regulations restricting the ability of the auto makers to terminate dealerships to national labor laws that gave unions powerful leverage against auto makers. There were environmental and safety laws that created other burdens.

If we raise the profile of the produce industry, it will both empower the friends of the industry and entice those who will come to see the industry as an excellent channel to enact their own priorities on labor, environmental, health and other issues.

There is another point, which is that as much as the idea of selling produce to schools or to consumers buying with various welfare payments may be appealing, it is also true that it can change the culture of the industry, from one that seeks to serve the consumer to one that seeks to solicit the government to adopt favorable policies. Think of so many supermarkets forgetting the consumer and, instead, focusing on selling shelf space to manufacturers.

We agree there is much to be gained by individual firms telling the many stories they have to tell. Consumers are so distant from the farm today that they need to be taught about the integrity many firms bring to the task of delivering the fruit of the earth to the people of the world.

Yet we are uncertain how useful an association can really be in this regard. For the bottom line is that some producers and marketers are firms of high character and some are not. One of the reasons producer organizations have struggled when they have ventured into marketing is that one can’t really say everyone is a high-quality producer or all of the crop is a high-quality crop. These mandatory-assessment organizations have as their charge to help sell all the crop from all the producers, and you start to enter a Lake Woebegone world — “where all the children are above average” — if you start claiming that the whole crop is the finest quality.

Equally, trade associations typically accept all legal operators who pay their dues as members. Many, perhaps most, are people of great courage and character who support their community. Some, however, are almost surely scoundrels and so the leading firms in the industry should be cautious about having their reputation associated with people less conscientious than they are.

In the collapse of the housing bubble, many find themselves reassessing what is really important in life. For a family, it may be that pursuit of a big house was not really the best path to raising children of good character and having a good home life. So, it may well be that we would be wise not to worry about being the biggest industry and focus instead on being the best, on conducting our daily tasks with integrity and gaining sustenance through serving our customers and, in so doing, serving our nation and our creator.