Sage Advice

As we think about Saddam Hussein and the prospect of war, I think of words I was taught in another context. The words of a man born in yesterday’s Iraq, in Babylonia. He is known as Hillel: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

As I write, the great West Coast ports that send American produce around the world are shuttered by a labor dispute, not one but two hurricanes have threatened to destroy the venue of our PMA convention, trillions of dollars in wealth have disappeared in the third consecutive year of stock market declines, our airmen are already being shot at in the no-fly zones over Iraq, and our soldiers and sailors may soon join them in a war in Iraq. Meanwhile, the whole civilian population continues to live under the threat of terrorist attack.

Yet after spending a week in Cuba, upon return home, I kissed the very soil of the United States and counted my many blessings. In Cuba, though the American delegation was treated like ambassadors, this only served to contrast with the way the system limited the opportunities of the common man. I stayed in a European-style hotel, but no Cuban is free to rent a room there. I went on the Internet every day, but only after I was carefully checked to make sure I wasn’t Cuban. So thorough are they in wiping out capitalism that a Cuban can’t even own a taxicab.

But I rebelled against the system in the little ways I could. Some Cubans who own old cars from before the revolution quietly moonlight as taxi drivers in the night. I would seek them out. Give my few dollars to fan the ember of freedom and entrepreneurship rather than line the pockets of the state. Call it random acts of liberty.

Our situation in the world is a weighty one. It is heavy because, although we never asked to carry the world’s burden’s, we are the only ones who can. When you hear other nations yelling, remember that half of it is a howl at their own impotence. These are societies that have elected welfare over self-defense and couldn’t act if they wanted to.

Once it was possible to believe that broad oceans protected our nation from those who would wish us ill. This, combined with the limitations of yesteryear’s weaponry, gave us the luxury of waiting, of making sure that our case was crystal clear to the entire world. Even in World War II, after Pearl Harbor, had the Germans not declared war on the United States, it is not at all certain that Congress would have declared war on Germany.

But things have changed. With travel, tourism, immigration or a modern missile, those oceans are no longer mighty buffers, and with the capacity of a single weapon of mass destruction being so great, the consequences of being wrong are…unthinkable.

So we have no choice but to look at the world a different way and consider a different approach…to understand that facing hard truths is better done sooner than later.

It is not really all that different than the lessons we learn in business every day. PRODUCE BUSINESS was launched at the PMA convention in San Francisco in 1985. During the past 17 years, the one thing that has kept us in good stead is that the people who make up the magazine were willing to adapt and change to a changing world, yet never lost track of what our purpose was.

Our frequency and size are different than we started with. We also decided to launch and acquire a group of sister publications serving related fields. All are different. And yet nothing really is. We set out 17 years ago, to tell the truth when others might prefer silence. We set out to educate and we set out to inspire. We do all that today.

I had a son just a few days before PMA last year. And though I work no less, now that William is here, I work differently. I think differently. For one of the great gifts that children bring to the world is that they extend the time horizons of adults. This makes things that might not otherwise be worth doing, worth undertaking.

Such an attitude is useful in publishing a magazine and in most things in life. After all, few of us ever get to really finish our work.

The pages of any single issue are not definitive answers. They are mere drafts of history, to be rewritten and revised, to be wrestled with and rethought.

None of us at PRODUCE BUSINESS has ever thought of ourselves as recording secretaries. We have never seen ourselves merely as observers to an industry but as participants. After all, my great-grandfather Jacob participated, my grandfather Harry, my father Michael and, through this work, so do I.

And our task, to Initiate Industry Improvement, has often meant to dare criticism, to risk financial punishment, to make our lives more difficult. But we know no other way.

There is another sage, Rabbi Tarfon, who gave us another saying: “You are not required to finish the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.” So we must carry on, knowing that we may not finish, but our work is not fruitless either.

It is fitting that the produce trade remember a story in the Talmud of how a sage named Choni Hamagel passed by an old man planting a carob tree. Choni asked the old man whether he expected to live long enough to see the tree bear fruit? The man replied that he did not, but it did not matter. Just as he had eaten the fruits of carob trees planted by his ancestors, so would his descendants eat from this tree.

The risks we face are vast, but think what risks our ancestors took to bring us to this point. Then think of the little children and children yet to come, and you will know your obligation. We must, as a nation, commit ourselves to do what we must, to be ourselves, to act with appropriate concern for others and to act with resolve.

We each serve in our own way. Keeping the nation and the world fed is an important and useful role. No matter how dark the day, we must plant many trees, because we must persevere in the belief that by acting now, we can build a better tomorrow and persevere in whatever task we may have undertaken, confident that our job is to move it forward before we are ready to pass the baton.

All of us at PRODUCE BUSINESS are grateful for our many opportunities to contribute to this great produce trade. We rededicate ourselves to the task of always striving to make it a little better.