‘We Are In The Produce Business’

Somehow in the midst of the pandemic, we realized that the mechanisms for delivery were somewhat ephemeral and that the need for insightful information and guidance was eternal.

It has been our practice since the first issue of this publication launched in October of 1985 to report on the status of this publication and the hopes, dreams and aspirations we hope to achieve in the years ahead. Along with the industry, we have been through many travails since we began. There were industry-specific issues such as The Cyanide Crisis with Chilean Grapes in 1989 and the the Great Spinach Crisis of 2006. There have also been national and international challenges: The September 11 Terrorist Attacks, the Iraq War and, now, of course the Global COVID-19 Pandemic.

This past pandemic year has, of course, been instructive but often in a way illustrating the terrible frustration at the difficulty of change. We’ve seen, for example, overburdened hospitals… indeed many of the most extreme public-policy measures imposed during the pandemic were specifically imposed because we wanted to keep hospital care available to those who needed it. It is very likely that when all the studies are done and the numbers tabulated, we will find that many died because they were afraid to go to hospitals and medical facilities, and that some medical facilities pushed others away.

Yet what we would do about this, post-COVID, is entirely unclear. Do we build more hospitals, train more doctors, nurses and other staff to just wait, in empty facilities, for the pandemic that might come next year or in a hundred years.

Even in business, questions about the future haunt us. Many businesses that were focused solely on foodservice made drastic changes during the pandemic to serve retail clientele. Others couldn’t do so and closed. What is the lesson? That businesses should diversify so they can endure a bad spell in any particular line? Or is the answer that businesses should distribute their profits and avoid excess retention of capital so that if catastrophe hits, they can close up and avoid losing the money they have made.

I come from a family long engaged in produce, but mostly as traders. I remember my father, Michael Prevor, talking to our team after some weather had knocked out a crop and our people were panicking over the impact on our business. My father reassured them as he directed them. “We are in the produce business,” he said. “If the vegetables from one sourcing area are wiped out, people still have to eat. We will bring those items in from elsewhere, or we will find substitutes and sell those. Our job is to not worry about lost opportunities, but to identify new ones.”

I remember that meeting and thought of him and his words often. When our trade shows and conferences were shot down, we learned of some linkage that we had known but never really thought about much. Print magazines, such as Produce Business, depend heavily on advertising sales brought on by bonus distributions at trade shows and events. So for the first time in 36 years, we saw sales decline. Yet our digital properties — ProduceBusiness.com, PerishableNews.com and the online PerishablePundit.com and PerishablePunditPodcast.com — saw sales boost by over 500%. I learned I could give speeches and do workshops online.

There were unintended benefits too. My family started having daily dinners, which we hadn’t for years, partly because I was traveling or working, but also because the kids had sports or plays or activities with friends. That was all shut down. My oldest had just gone off as a freshman to college, but his classes were all online, dining was six feet distanced, and it was difficult to meet people without breaking the rules. In the end, he came home and we enjoyed more family time. It was a small blessing for me as a father, but I hated what the pandemic and our response to it was doing to my children.

The truth is that we will never know the full price paid. My younger son is applying to college now, and, of course, there is a big gap in his resume, the plays he would have been in, the sports he would have participated in, the relationships he would have built… all a blank page. Yet he found a path. He couldn’t be the star of the school play or musical, but he has always loved Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, and he launched a website and social media channels called HHN With Speculation Matt, and, all the sudden, he has a global network of fans and followers.

My oldest son lost out on all the freshman orientation things that let every college student meet and mingle, but he took his love for Disney and characters and leveraged it into becoming the youngest club President at Cornell as president of the Big Red Bears that manage Cornell’s mascot. After he came home, I watched him running the weekly club meetings on Zoom and realized he never knew of another way.

Watching the boys build new paths has inspired me. When I was young, the industry only knew of newspapers with weekly price reports, and we created the magazine you hold in your hands to focus on the fact that business, and the world, had changed — that success now required marketing, merchandising, management and procurement skills and that the old utility of newspapers had faded.

Ken Whitacre, who I had met in college, joined with me to launch a new way of informing and instructing the industry, a new way of helping the trade to advance. Once it was just a magazine, then the internet came, and then we created live events and, somehow in the midst of the pandemic, we realized that the mechanisms for delivery were somewhat ephemeral and that the need for insightful information and guidance was eternal.

The shows are live again, print is booming, the web products continue to break records, and I still hear my father say, “We are in the produce business.” So we are, to serve as the time demands. I thank everyone for allowing us to do so.                pb