Paradise Lost

So much of the attention of the produce industry focuses on big buyers or giant growing and marketing operations in California that it is sometimes good to remind ourselves that the industry depends on a lot of other players. Some of the most valuable contributions to our industry come from smaller buyers, wholesalers and brokers and the smaller growers and shippers scattered all across the country.

I recently gave a presentation at the Michigan Produce Marketing Conference, a really productive event put together by Michigan State’s University Extension program. In addition to workshops with some big retailers in the area and a large apple shipper from Washington State, the organizers brought in everything from seed companies to academics to inform the local grower community.

The attendees were generally earnest, smart and hard-working, and a number had developed really successful strategies to face the business conditions of the new millennium. Yet, the growers in Michigan, like growers all over the country, are in trouble.

Part of it is that the world has simply changed. When my family got involved in selling Chilean fruit, the challenge was to get control of the very limited supply. Now, supply is easy; the problem is how to sell all the fruit at a profit for the growers.

Growers have always grimaced through plenty of bad times, but they also have known some really lucrative times. When another growing region had a freeze or experienced hail or some other problem, prices were sure to shoot up and the profits were rich. But freer trade, easier transportation, and increased storage capabilities mean that such price hikes are increasingly rare. Last year there was a devastating hurricane that practically destroyed a country in Central America, but banana prices barely moved.

We live in a world in which production is no longer a big challenge. And for a typical farmer, that is a very serious problem. After all, what a farmer wants to do is produce.

A lot of focus for growers around the country is on consolidation at the retail end. It really doesn’t matter to a grower who owns what, but if buying gets consolidated, that is a scary thing for a mid-size grower/shipper.

The solutions are so completely unsatisfactory. In an age of buyer-consolidation, midsize grower/shippers have a few options: They can downsize and become niche producers and marketers, using, say, organic techniques to grow heirloom varieties and sell them to specialized buyers such as upscale foodservice operations. They can upsize and take on growing deals across the country and around the world so that they can supply retail behemoths with year-round production. Alternatively, they can abandon marketing and grow for a larger co-op, affiliate with a sales organization or grow under contract for a big marketer.

These are intelligent assessments by leading experts, and they may even be right. But they are hardly a solution to the typical midsize produce grower.

The typical midsize grower doesn’t want to grow organic edible flowers; he wants to grow the items his father and grandfather did. He doesn’t want to take on the responsibility for marketing or growing product around the country or the world. He is a farmer and wants to personally be involved with the farm, not be a suit flying around to supervise the acreage in 36 locations in 14 states. He doesn’t want to join a co-op or work for some big agri-business.

And one wonders what to tell such a man.

He’ll walk through his fields and point out the most beautiful of his production. And you can’t help but think of a parent showing off his kids, because, to a farmer, that product is like a child and, man, is he proud of his children.

And the produce is beautiful, but as we walk the field, we both know that that may not be enough.

Consumers are very distant from farming today. But so are most people in the produce trade. So many focus on marketing and merchandising and management and procurement and just count on the product being there. That’s a reasonable thing to count on. Someone somewhere will grow the product that we can sell.

But though the product will be there, what we all visualize as a farmer – a man tending his own land and selling his own production – is likely to become increasingly rare.

Children of the future will go to those “restoration villages” and see back in the days when we had blacksmiths, or appliance repair shops or, one day, farmers.

I am a capitalist. The change strikes me as inevitable. We can give workshops for those few innovative farmers looking to change their approach to the world, but for many, it’s a holding action until they retire or sell out.

Production may well become more efficient, food cheaper and even more widely available. The cornucopia will be a triumph of Western Civilization. In obtaining great victories, however, much is often lost.