An American Abroad

Addressing industry groups is always a challenge, but never more so than when you’re speaking to a group overseas. You have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, the last thing you want to do is come across as the know-it-all American who thinks he knows exactly what other people should do. On the other hand, when I do this sort of speaking it’s usually because I was invited specifically to tell what’s going on in America. The only reason they are interested in that is because foreigners often see what happens in America as what will happen in their own countries a few years later.

In a way, the speaker’s role is symbolic of the ambivalence with which people around the world view America. Almost universally they admire America’s energy, enterprise, and ingenuity, yet they worry over its overreaching influence in the world and are concerned that the effect of American policy on other countries can be ignored or neglected by our government. And at the heart of it all, the almost complete hegemony of American Popular Culture, where the whole world eats in McDonald’s, wears Levi Jeans and listens to American Rock Music, raises the knowing question of what a country truly is and, whether, in fact, a People not isolated can really maintain their specific identity as a People.

I just returned from a trip to Australia where I served as the keynote speaker for the Australian United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association’s annual combined industry conference. I met with dozens of produce and retail groups down under and ran through an exhausting schedule of 10 major speeches and a significant amount of private consultation with some of the largest retail operations in Australia.

It is an industry in the throes of change. A strong central market system that traditionally handled virtually all the country’s produce is giving way to direct buying by newly expanding chain store operations. An industry of small growers who have traditionally packed and marketed their crops on their own is facing the challenge of developing high volume packing and marketing facilities.

Though a small market in terms of people, with only about 18 million at present, and an expanse the size of the continental U.S., the people of Australia are prosperous and live a fully modern Western lifestyle, despite enduring a deep recession.

American/Australian produce trade is starting to develop. We shipped about half a million cases of American navels down to Australia last year, as well as some California dates, garlic, and a few other items.

The Australian Riverland district is working with DNE World Fruit Sales, hoping to export about 600,000 cases of Australian navels to the States next year. A few navels came this year and some spotting (believed to be caused by cold storage in the boat) caused some losses, but DNE and the Australians repacked the lot rather than ruin the Australian’s chance to present a premium image. They are currently investigating the problem to prevent a recurrence.

The Australian produce industry is highly protected, mostly due to phytosanitary standards. When I was in Australia, which was just entering springtime, there was not a peach, plum or nectarine to be found and the grapes left much to be desired. My guess is the average Australian supermarket could increase sales $20,000 a week if we could gain entry for American stone fruit and grapes to Australia.

Some big companies are getting involved. Chiquita has established a division in Australia and is selling bananas in part of the country and planning a rollout to the rest. They’re selling Australian-grown bananas as imports are not permitted. In fact, Chiquita’s arrival in Australia caused panic among Australian banana growers that Chiquita would try to bring in Latin American bananas. Chiquita denies this and it is certainly trying to project an Australian image. You never see the word Chiquita on ads, hats, key chains, what be it, without Australia featured prominently

But Australia, with its Western-style labor costs, is a high-cost banana producer and, though the Australian banana growers have put up a good front by forming an association to promote bananas and fighting imports, etc., many feel that the protection can’t last forever. A number of banana growers and wholesalers pulled me aside to ask if I had some contacts at Dole and Del Monte. Why? Just in case Dole or Del Monte were interested in setting up operations to compete with Chiquita, these fellows though it might be wise to sell out. They wanted me to pass on their names.

Australia is a country in its adolescence. A few years ago they changed their national anthem so it was no longer the British “God Save the Queen.” And it seems the inevitable next step is to change their flag with Britain’s Union Jack on it to something authentically Australian.

Yet as the ties to traditional British culture decline, the ties to American popular culture increase. Recent waves of Asian immigration are transforming Australia into a multi-cultural society similar in many ways to the United States.

I came away very much liking Australia. The people were warm and friendly and kind beyond belief. The industry, though struggling to define its future, had lots of bright young men looking to make a success of themselves and intent on finding out what America might have in ways of guidance for them.

A visit to Australia is something of an exercise in nostalgia. It’s a place where the conventions still have a “ladies program,” and speakers unselfconsciously thank “their girls” for their help.

But it also is a visit to tomorrow. In the fullness of time, the vast and empty country will surely fill its space. And the vast natural resources will be enhanced by the addition of creative and dynamic people. One cannot visit Australia without feeling that life has enormous potential.