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!