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Perishable Pundit
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Sustainability/Social Responsibility And GMO Corn & Carrots

Trying to get our hands around what “sustainability” and “corporate social responsibility” mean isn’t easy. When we published Tim York’s letter in A Call For An Industrywide Sustainability And Social Responsibility Initiative, we also announced plans for a conference that will help the industry work through these issues.

One of the reasons the definitions get so slippery is because everyone recognizes that there has to be a different definition than charity. In other words, only successful business practices can actually be sustainable and it is silly to think of practices that will lead to bankruptcy as socially responsible.

Yet it is also true that we don’t want to fall in the trap of saying that everything we would like to see happen is automatically a win for everybody. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development formulated a vision for sustainability by saying it could help companies protect the business, run the business and grow the business.

One of the hot concepts in this arena is epitomized in a book entitled, The Triple Bottom Line, by Andrew W. Savitz with Karl Weber. The book is focused on helping companies achieve economic, socialand environmental success. It builds on a people, planet, profit model articulated by John Elkington in 1994 and expanded on in his book Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line Of 21st Century Business.

Savitz points to Monsanto and its failure to work with stakeholders in planning the introduction of its GMO products as an example of a neglect of corporate social responsibility that also hindered its business success:

Protecting the business includes reducing risk of harm to customers, employees, and communities; identifying emerging risks and management failures early; limiting regulatory interventions; and retaining the explicit or implicit license to operate granted by government or by the community at large.

Biotechnology giant Monsanto made a concerted push into the field of bioengineering crops in the mid- to late 1990s. Monsanto‘s genetically modified (GM ) seeds were supposed to offer farmers enormous competitive benefits-corn containing natural insecticides , and soybeans able to withstand potent weed killers . Monsanto had a powerful sweet spot proposition: that its pioneering efforts would give the company a leading position in a major new marketplace and provide a powerful new weapon in the battle against world hunger. “Monsanto is in a unique position to contribute to the global future,” declared biodiversity advocate Peter Raven .

But Monsanto executives … failed to work with stakeholders in their development of the new initiative — a core principle of sustainable business. Monsanto dismissed early critics of GM products as antitechnology fanatics and failed to mount a concerted effort to educate consumers about the science behind genetic engineering

Monsanto consequently found itself beset by a variety of attacks. A British scientist claimed that rats eating GM potatoes failed to grow properly, and a Cornell university study published in 1999 appeared to show that monarch butterfly caterpillars died after ingesting pollen from bioengineered corn. The accuracy of both claims was quickly challenged, but public fears about “Frankenfoods” now seemed to be bolstered by science.

Several European supermarket chains as well as American natural-food retailers announced that they would remove GM foods from their shelves, and major food companies, such as baby-food maker Gerber, vowed to keep their products free of GM ingredients. Embarrassingly, even the staff canteen at Monsanto’s own UK headquarters announced it would ban GM food from its menu “in response to concern raised by our customers.”

Nonengineered soybeans began to sell at a premium over their modified counterparts — a sign that the market was rejecting GM foods. By the end of 2000, the stock market valued Monsanto’s $5 billion-a-year agricultural business unit at less than zero, despite billions the company had invested in highly advanced science over the previous decade.

Today the entire biotech industry is still struggling to win acceptance for bioengineered products in Europe and around the world — largely because of Monsanto‘s early failure to consider the demands of sustainability before launching this major business initiative.

In other words, one of the points that makes wrestling with this whole social responsibility arena difficult for many businesspeople is that one of the recognitions coming out of the work is that, often, businesses get constrained in what they can do by either government or private action. In many cases, these actions are prompted by stakeholders and so a prudent business strategy involves dialogue with lots of different players.

Just a few days ago, the President of France acted to ban GMO corn in his country — the only GMO seed that had previously been permitted. The headline: French Government Move To Ban Monsanto GMO Draws Fire. It was controversial decision and likely will not stand up to World Trade Organization scrutiny.

It was even a bit ironic as The Wall Street Journal ran a piece in 2006 pointing out that French farmers had become allies for Monsanto as they wanted to grow corn competitively:

In a country with strong and often romantic ties to food and the land, and amid this bucolic landscape of neat vineyards and village butchers, U.S. biotech companies have found an unlikely ally in their battle to bring genetically modified crops to Europe — French farmers.

More French farmers are sowing the one genetically modified seed permitted in the European Union, called transgenic corn, saying they want cheaper, better protection from pests….

The business question: Would an effort to engage in dialog with customers, employees and communities have avoided much of the opposition to GMA crops?

Possibly, Monsanto made the decision that its first GMO products would lower the costs of farmers or increase yield. Although these benefits could trickle down to consumers, they were distant benefits and many saw risk without any benefit.

What if the first genetically modified items were designed to cure disease, solve important nutritional deficiencies or directly help people in another way?

The Baylor College of Medicine just came out with a study pointing out that a small genetic modification can make carrots a much better source of calcium:

Genetically modified carrots provide more calcium

Genetically modifying carrots to express increased levels of a gene that enables the transport of calcium across membranes of plant cells can make the vegetables a better source of calcium, said researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University. Their report appears today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Slightly altering the gene (sCAX1) to make it a more active transporter allows for increased bioavailable calcium in the carrots,” said Dr. Kendal Hirschi, professor of pediatrics-nutrition and principal investigator of the study conducted at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at BCM in cooperation with Texas Children’s Hospital.

Greater calcium absorption

In an initial study in mice, researchers found that those which were fed the carrots with the altered gene could get the same amount of calcium as those which ate twice the amount of normal carrots. In a study in 30 human adults, those who ate the modified carrots absorbed 41 percent more calcium than did those who ate the unmodified carrots.

“These carrots were grown in carefully monitored and controlled environments,” said Hirschi. “Much more research needs to be conducted before this would be available to consumers.”

Hirschi emphasizes that there is no magic food that will solve all nutritional problems, and that proper food and exercise are still necessary. However, further developments in this area of research could allow for more nutrients in fruits and vegetables and lead to improved health.

Osteoporosis, one of the world’s most prevalent nutritional disorders, is a disease that reduces bone mineral density in the body. Doctors usually prescribe more calcium and better calcium uptake as one solution to treat the disease. Increasing levels of calcium absorption from foods would have a significant global impact on this disease.

Vegetable-based diets

With physicians and nutrition experts recommending a vegetable-based diet for health, increasing the calcium that can be absorbed from plant-based food will become increasingly important, Hirschi said.

Others who participated in the study included Jay Morris, Keli M. Hawthorne, Tim Hotze and Dr. Steven A. Abrams, all of BCM.

Funding for this research came from the National Institutes of Health, the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University and the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

The Pundit’s kids just are not big milk drinkers — but they love carrots. A product such as this might have appeal.

Efforts to grow and market a Golden Rice in Asia that would contain enough Vitamin A to avoid the childhood blindness that often results from a deficiency have attracted interest.

All these efforts, though, struggle in an environment of anti-GMO sentiment that is difficult to overcome.

Would a different attitude by Monsanto have been more sustainable? Might it have led Monsanto to do things differently and in a way that might have led to greater success?

Do sustainability and social responsibility enhance the financial bottom line?

E-mail us here to participate in the organization of our industry conference on sustainability and social responsibility.




NewStar’s Eldredge
Takes A Break

Notice comes that one of the industry luminaries has decided to take a break:

NewStar CEO Eldredge Plans a Hiatus

NewStar Fresh Foods®, the world’s largest shipper of iceless Green Onions and a recognized leader in packaged Spinach and Asparagus, has announced the planned departure of President and Chief Executive Officer David Eldredge, effective December 2007. Fellow NewStar partner Mark Drever has stepped in to assume the role of CEO of NewStar Fresh Foods. Dave continues to be an integral part of NewStar as an active member and partner in the company.

“After almost 30 years in the produce industry, it’s time to take a break, recharge my batteries, and return to the industry with renewed passion,” says Eldredge. “I am proud of the foundation we’ve built here at NewStar, and especially excited about the direction the company is taking in the future.”

“Dave has made a personal decision to take a hiatus from the produce industry for a bit,” acknowledges Drever.

“After decades of leadership and service to this industry, he felt it was time to step out and take a break from the day-to-day mix, but he continues to be an owner/investor in NewStar Fresh Foods and active member in the company.”

Eldredge has held the position of President/CEO of NewStar Fresh Foods since November of 2002. Since being elected President, he has put into operation a new state of the art Value Added processing facility, grown the company’s flag ship green onion and spinach business, and led the company to be a leading grower/shipper in the industry. Says Drever, “Dave’s hands-on leadership will be missed by all here at NewStar.

We wish Dave well and hope he comes back with renewed enthusiasm and passion for the trade. All of us need to recharge, and the industry can be richer when participants have had the leisure to think without the day-to-day pressure to act.




Fighting Afghanistan’s
Drug Trade By Growing Pomegranates Instead
Of Poppy

One of the difficulties for U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that defeating the enemy is not enough. There is still a tremendous danger that the country will collapse into lawlessness and that anarchy will create opportunities for terrorists to reestablish themselves.

One big issue is that the illegal drug industry is now believed to be Afghanistan’s largest private industry. So efforts are now being made to encourage poppy growers to switch to growing pomegranates. The Financial Times in London ran the story, which is entitled, From poppies to pomegranates: NATO tries to turn around a narco-state.

A little side note: Although the Financial Times stuck NATO into the headline, the story doesn’t mention any country other than the United States as paying for any of this:

The high-security hanger just yards from the runway of the Kandahar Air Field must be one of the most unusual outposts of the international grocery trade anywhere in the world.

Normally, the cavernous structure at this strategically important military base in Afghanistan holds stores and equipment used by the international forces attempting to subdue the resurgent Taliban in the southern province. But last Autumn it was receiving shipments of pomegranates on enormous flatbed trucks.

Well over 1,000 tonnes of the bulbous fruit have been brought from the orchards around the city to an airfield that normally plays host to jets, helicopters and unmanned spy drones. The boxed Kandahari pomegranates — among the world’s best, connoisseurs claim — are then loaded into cargo planes chartered by the US military and flown on to supermarket shelves in Dubai, Vancouver and London.

Shoppers in Dubai pay up to $11 (£5.60, €7.40) a kilo for the highest-quality fruit, compared with the $1.20 locals will stretch to. For the US government-funded contractors overseeing this export business, those price differentials will be key to helping Afghanistan develop legal cash-crops capable of taking on the country’s booming narcotics business. Officials from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) say that the country has huge potential to make money by reclaiming its reputation — lost after decades of war — for producing high-quality fruit.

Certainly, the comparable value of poppy and pomegranate crops makes the fruit seem like a very an attractive financial alternative. According to research by David Mansfield, a British expert on the economics of poppy farming, the gross price for a hectare of poppy in Helmand this year is around $3,697. Farmers’ profits can be dramatically eaten away by the high cost of hiring workers to collect the flower’s resin during the short harvest season. By contrast, USAID says that this year farmers have been able to make around $5,000 for a hectare of pomegranates….

The US strategy is to link farmers with international markets, in part through a series of seven big agricultural fairs hosted around the country, and in part by telling them how to meet the quality standards demanded by retailers such as Carrefour, the French supermarket that stocks Kandahari pomegranates in its stores in Dubai. That entails teaching farmers and traders to separate their fruit into the standard sizes demanded by stores in developed markets, shipping them in specially printed cardboard boxes rather than packed with straw in wooden crates and generally trying to overcome buyers’ suspicion of the “made in Afghanistan” label.

As part of a $6.6m Kandahar orchard programme, USAID is also offering credit to farmers and planting new pomegranate trees, particularly on former poppy land….

This year’s shipments of fruit to Dubai will, according to the team of advisers from Chemonics, one of the biggest USAID contractors in Afghanistan, only break even — although they have high hopes that in the coming years they will be able to raise their prices as Kandahari pomegranates regain their reputation for being among the best in the world.

The scheme is meant to be self-sustaining but for the time being the pomegranate farmers are enjoying substantial uncosted subsidies. The airlifting of the fruits is being done at a fifth of its normal cost by a cargo company that is happy to let the scheme use planes which would otherwise be flying out of the country empty. Dog handlers who check the pomegranate boxes for drugs and explosives also do so as a favour, free of charge.

Security is going to be an ongoing problem. Half of the pomegranates seen by the FT during a visit in November came from “behind Taliban lines”, according to one of the agricultural contractors who cannot be named for security reasons. In late October the Taliban attacked Aghandab district directly to the north of Kandahar city. Although the insurgents were later expelled by Canadian and Afghan forces, agricultural advisers working for Chemonoics said they were still engaged in “combat farming” and that large parts of the district were no longer accessible.

Pomegranate is regarded as one of the easiest crops to export internationally. The fruit is not nearly as perishable as seedless grapes, another crop that prospers in Afghanistan. It also requires minimal processing compared with raisins or other dried fruit.

But high-value agricultural products are often the ones that take the longest to mature. A pomegranate orchard takes between six and nine years, almonds up to four years, and apricot up to five. In contrast poppy, the crop of which is currently being planted around the country, takes just six months.

The full article deals with the numerous obstacles to the program, including the fact that in many cases a request from a drug dealer that a farmer grow poppy is “an offer you can’t refuse” and the fact that the government is not really 100% behind the effort.

We doubt this type of effort can have much of an impact. How many Afghan pomegranates can the world economy absorb?

Still, the folks at POM Wonderful have been pouring money into research on the healthy attributes of the pomegranate. Now on this research, and its potential for boosting pomegranate consumption, may lie the future success of the war on terror. Who would have thunk?




Redlands Christian Migrant Association Is An Organization Worth Replicating Nationwide

Our article, Florida Tomato Growers Reject Penny-A-Pound Initiative At The Industry’s Peril, brought some intense protest from many in the Florida industry. We ran a letter, Pundit’s Mailbag — Defending The Florida Tomato Industry, to give voice to some of the concerns industry members expressed on the issue.

We also heard from industry members about various organizations that they felt reflected positively on the industry. One is a charity that is supported by many of the growers, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Barbara Mainster
Executive Director
Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA)
Immokalee, Florida

Q: Tell us about RCMA. How did it get formed? What is its purpose?

A: We are a sixties organization and are unique. The older I get, the more I realize this. We started out taking care of farm worker children while their parents worked in the farms and groves. Yet we quickly realized the farmers and farm workers had a whole lot in common. So rather then spend time on things they couldn’t agree on, we became a group that had both farmers and farm workers on board. And they agreed right up front to work on things they could agree on; the need for childcare, healthcare, housing, education, field conditions, such as pesticide training, field sanitation, and so forth. They agreed they wouldn’t discuss wages and unionization; that’s off the table.

As a result, many good things have happened in this state for farm workers. In the case of RCMA, what we’ve accomplished can be seen in the number of families we’ve been able to help. We started out 42 years ago with three childcare centers serving 75 kids in one county. Now we are in 21 counties serving 7,800 children in childcare and have two charter schools.

Q: Do you get involved in other areas beyond childcare and education, such as housing and working conditions?

A: Part of a good quality childcare program includes health screening, developmental screening, individual lesson plans for children, social services for the families, taking them to appointments, showing them where the services are in the community and how to get what they need.

We also provide the children with two meals and a snack daily. If the parents don’t have legal status, they are not entitled to food stamps. Therefore in emergencies such as a freeze, we have to get involved with getting families basic food. Two years ago an anonymous donor gave $80,000 for emergency food and rent assistance and we used it in two months. If there’s a problem, we can’t say we don’t do that; we only do childcare.

We’re not involved in housing or working conditions.

Q: Your strategy to form an alliance between growers and workers to further your cause is quite different than the divisive tactics pursued by the Coalition of Immokolee Workers (CIW).

A: How does a non-profit social agency get results? We have chosen to be upfront and honest. If Republicans and Democrats can’t talk politics because they’ll never agree, they certainly can talk about their grandchildren and find common ground.

Q: Did you get backing from agricultural organizations?

A: The first ag group to help us was Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA). As the years went on, we gained support from the Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Strawberry Growers Association, the Florida Tomato Committee, and individual citrus and vegetable growers. The leader in supporting us is the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, a strong advocate in the Florida legislature. FFVA also has a scholarship fund to help migrant children go to college.

We don’t have a scrapbook of us picketing. The kids that have been through our program are now very successful adults; some are bankers, architects, and teachers. Eighty-five percent of our staff is former farm workers.

We get some attacks on us for bringing farmers and workers together. Some organizations are just anti-agriculture. In a world where most farm worker advocacy groups don’t work with growers, they act like growers are the enemy. We get criticized for being friends with the enemy.

Wendell Rollason, my husband, passed away 11 years ago. He’s the one who really got us all going in ‘68. He was the first executive director of RCMA, after the Mennonites founded us. Wendell always said that in every profession, there are good guys and bad guys, good doctors and bad doctors, good farmers and bad farmers. We work with the good farmers.

Q: What have growers done for RCMA?

A: They’ve gone to the legislature and lobbied. Growers and farmers have asked for more money for childcare, education and housing. They advocate. They also donate resources and money. For a $250 donation, we can draw down matching federal and state funds that can support a child in childcare for a year. Growers have helped us build a charter school. East Coast Brokers and Packers, Plant City, Florida, for example, has just given a facility, a building for us to use for childcare.

In terms of funding for childcare, our state is the only one in the country that actually contracts with us — 13 million dollars to serve farm worker kids. That would not have happened without the backing of Florida tomato growers and other agricultural organizations in the state. They are a force to be reckoned with. If I need to get in to see a legislator, the lobbyist from the Florida tomato growers will get me in. I can’t get in by myself.

For health clinics, the growers have always spoken up to the powers that be. At the local county government level, they have spoken for zoning for housing and childcare.

Six L’s, a big tomato company based in Immokalee, provides a building on their land for childcare. Six L’s also has supported us through our Christmas card project, Print Angels, where the kids draw pictures. This program was started in 1998 at the suggestion and under the leadership of A. Duda & Sons, Oviedo, Florida. This type of program is more oriented toward enhancing public relations than making money.

Q: Why is that important?

A: When you’re a child-caring organization, all of your money is in the staff to take care of the kids. It was only two years ago that we hired people for public relations. Many people will say we are the best kept secret in the state. When people get Christmas cards, it helps people know who we are. Six L’s also donated $15,000 to sponsor a panel of a landmark wall mural on our building.

Immokalee is a very diverse community. It has a negative reputation to people who don’t live there because it is a very low-income community. To have prominent art in a public place — this is literally on Main Street, curving around the wall, entering the building and traversing right out again — celebrating agriculture, people who work the land, and rural life, is uplifting. It tells migrant workers, ‘we are worth a piece of art, we are worth something beautiful, what we do is important.’

A. Duda & Sons provides health insurance for the families that work for them, and they have a childcare center on one of their farms. And after the hurricane, they replaced their housing trailers faster then anyone else in Florida. They’re unusual. It’s a family-owned business. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of them left. A lot of these guys are struggling. A. Duda & Sons is very successful.

Wishnatzki Farms, a strawberry grower, is also very socially conscious and a good employer.

There have been so many others, such as Graves Brothers, Wabasso, Florida, citrus growers; The Burgoons, watercress farmers; Indian River Citrus League, Vero Beach, florida; Zellwin Farms, Zellwood, Florida; Brooks Tropicals, Homestead, Florida; the Krome family, avocado growers; Wheeler Farms, Lake Placid, Florida; DiMare Farms, Homestead, Florida; Pacific Tomato Growers, Palmetto, Florida; SanWa Growers, Tampa, Florida, oriental vegetables; and Lykes Brothers, Tampa, Florida. This is a sampling of individual companies taking meaningful actions on behalf of migrant workers and their families.

Q: What is your assessment of the housing, working conditions and wages of the workers?

A: I think that farm work is extremely hard work and there’s not enough of it, steady enough to make a good living. If people could work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, it would be a different story. When there’s a drought, or freeze, everyone suffers.

Of course, the workers are not paid enough. The problem is not with the grower; it’s the markup when the grower sells the product to the supermarket. The prices are phenomenal, the market value compared to the grocery store.

Jay Taylor of Taylor and Fulton, Palmetto, Florida, is one of the most socially accountable, and very interested in the Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) program . He’s third generation but he struggles with a combination of labor and cost. I believe he is going out of farming in Immokolee.

Florida tomato growers by and large are business people who are willing to do the right thing. They’ve joined the SAFE program and want to be socially accountable employers. They care about the kids and their families. There are so many factors that can enter what happens. Their profits are a concern. Joining the SAFE program is more than a baby step. Anytime when someone opens the door to their operations and their records, it’s an important statement.

Q: What about housing?

A: Florida farmers are keenly aware of the housing problem, but the issue is that housing here is extremely expensive. It won’t get easier, it will get harder. The northern farmers do provide more housing; it’s much more common in northern states. Maybe inspections are easier, I don’t know. When workers leave here, they usually know where they are going to live, say Ohio, with the same grower in the same housing.

Housing remains an issue everywhere. Obviously housing in rural communities is not great. Guys like Jay Taylor or the people at Six L’s build housing for their workers.

We can’t pretend immigration issues don’t relate here.

Q: In what ways? Are you talking about the guest worker program?

A: Looking for housing for H2A workers is not a happy situation. In the H2A program, the worker gets a visa, and 90 percent will be male. His wife and kids won’t get visas. The farmer petitioning has to provide housing. He can have dormitory housing for single men.

More and more growers to stay in business have to look at the H2A program. The problem is that through this program you don’t necessarily get experienced pickers. If it’s their first time, they may have no clue what they’re getting into in terms of the work, or the knowledge of how to get things done. But if the farmer has no other way to get workers, they will have to make do.

To build housing for a family is very different. The same space housing a husband, wife and two kids could have eight working people in dorm-style living versus two. Wife and kids aren’t getting visas. I’m not worried there won’t be enough kids for our centers; I’m worried about the impact on the fabric of society.

What does this mean to a family? Daddy goes away six to eight months and then comes back. This is not good for kids. Ultimately everyone should care about the kids, the next generation and our future.

Q: In some ways, then, it is your hope through the work you do that you’ll provide the skills these children need to move beyond migrant labor? You mentioned earlier how many students of RCMA programs have later entered into more lucrative professions.

A: We provide more than childcare. It’s an education program. Teaching English is a huge part of it to prepare children for public school and create the building blocks for a better life. These kids absolutely represent everything we stand for in this country. They’re honest, respectful and want to help their families.

I went up to testify in front of Senator Tom Harkin when people were talking about the children working in the fields and the need for more money allocated to childcare. There was talk about growers leaving easy picking sections for them to pick after school. ‘Help your family’ — that’s what you do in a Mexican family. At younger ages, it exists if there is no childcare and a grower doesn’t see it. In the summers, the bigger kids go along to help, and it’s legal at a certain age. If they’re with their families and at the right age and feel good about helping, I don’t think that’s bad. Truly we don’t know the affect of pesticides on bodies that small, but that is another issue.

A grower said to me 30 years ago, it’s complicated. If you see two heads of cabbage, one with a worm hole, which one do you think the consumer will buy? We have to do pesticides; we have to invest in food safety. It all costs money.

I really like having produce grown in this country where we know what the laws are.

The American consumer pays the least for food than any consumer in the world. We want the lowest prices.

Construction is similar to field labor. It’s a profession for young people. Your back is only good for so many years. People work long hard days and weekends. When we face a freeze, it’s terrible for the migrant workers. They don’t get work. They live in fear of deportation and of being sent home. They all want to learn English and prove their worth. Comprehensive immigration reform is what migrant workers need.

Q: How are you dealing with the political firestorm around immigration issues? Does this affect your programs?

A: Thank God our funding hasn’t been affected. The immigration fight is painful and ugly. Look at these kids. Most of them are U.S. citizens. We are working with the families, doing everything from teaching them English to the importance of reading to their kids, and going to school with them on the first day. We have sinks where parents wash up before they pick up their babies so they don’t have residue from fields. We run high quality childcare. Fifty percent of our childcare centers are nationally accredited compared to a national average of seven percent. The parents are extremely supportive. They come to the centers, work on the playground. Any time we have meetings, there is 95 percent attendance.

RCMA serves infants six weeks to children 5 years. Our charter schools go from kindergarten through 6th grade. The schools are a relatively new adventure, eight years now, with about 400 students. We also serve other kids that are older with after school programs.

Q: With the irregular work and seasonality of the ag business, aren’t workers required to move around? How does that affect school attendance?

A: Florida has a long season; agriculture jobs start in October and go through June. We work with families and encourage families to get their children into school. Centers generally open November and close end of May. Some stay open till June depending on what’s picked.

Q: What do you think of the Penny a Pound schemes?

A: I’ve tried to get an idea of how much money it amounts to. How many tomatoes are sold to fast food places versus elsewhere? It’s a small percentage. Penny a Pound sounds great, but it won’t be on every pound they pick by a long shot. People hear Penny a Pound and don’t have the right impression. It needs to be on a much larger scale for it to make a difference. Really and truly they’ll just stop growing tomatoes here.

What we’ve achieved through RCMA has been phenomenal, the good things that have passed because of our relationships with agricultural organizations and growers. Other states should be trying to imitate what we’ve done. Our alliance with tomato growers, citrus growers and other farmers is a big part of our success. A huge coop insurance plan through industry organizations as was suggested in the Perishable Pundit would be a wonderful idea. Much more good can come if we work together in partnership.

That Redlands Christian Migrant Association is a wonderful organization doing wonderful work is beyond question. Barbara Mainster and her husband of blessed memory, Wendell Rollason, both elected to do God’s work on this earth. They deserve only praise.

The world will be a better place if the organization is duplicated in other states and countries and if people will support it. The Pundit just made a $500 donation from his own pocket and hopes that Pundit readers will donate generously right here.

It is terrific — and smart — for Florida growers to support the organization. From a practical perspective, it helps free up parents to work productively when they know their children are safe, well cared for and learning. From a PR standpoint, it helps to provide evidence that many Florida producers are trying to help their workers. From a moral standpoint, it is often difficult to make the world what we might like it to be, but we can do what we can, and supporting groups such as the Redlands Christian Migrant Association is a practical way to do the right thing.

The interview is filled with important points. Let us look at some of the intriguing things that Barbara Mainster said and look at them in a broader context:

“They agreed they wouldn’t discuss wages and unionization; that’s off the table….

How does a non-profit social agency get results? We have chosen to be upfront and honest. If Republicans and Democrats can’t talk politics because they’ll never agree, they certainly can talk about their grandchildren and find common ground. “

There is often a debate in the non-profit world about how best to get results. Engage or oppose? RCMA is a fantastic example of the good that can come from engagement, from trying to find common ground.

But it also speaks to its limitations. We have been writing a lot lately about social responsibility and, to many people, charity is inherently unacceptable as a way of assuring that people have things such as child care.

They would say that no matter the quality of the care — it detracts from human dignity that people are forced to depend on the kindness of strangers.

Some see the issue as a corporate one and want minimum wages and other factors set at a level and applied to all employees so that working people can afford day care.

Others blame the government for not offering it as a right. Just as we offer every child the right to go to first grade, why shouldn’t every child have the right to pre-K or preschool?

Wherever you come down on these issues, this much is certain: First that the industry will be spoken of in the context of the conditions of its workers — even if the workers are paid as much as possible. Second, that no amount of support for charitable groups will cause people to stop thinking about wages and working conditions.

I think that farm work is extremely hard work and there’s not enough of it, steady enough to make a good living. If people could work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, it would be a different story. When there’s a drought, or freeze, everyone suffers.

Of course, the workers are not paid enough. The problem is not with the grower; it’s the markup when the grower sells the product to the supermarket. The prices are phenomenal, the market value compared to the grocery store.

Everyone can certainly suspect other parts of the chain for taking “too much” — but a glance at retailer P&L statements make it clear that they don’t have it easy either. There may have to be more money in the system.

There has been a lot of writing lately about “cheap food,” and much of it focuses on whether it is actually cheap or whether it represents cost shifting to different places.

If we need federal grants and charity to support the workers we bring in to harvest our crops, then there is a cost to the food that is not being paid through the food but rather through charitable donations and federal funds.

We had a reader write us on immigration, and he claimed that the City of Salinas was paying in increased crime for the way we were bringing in farm labor.

Now this doesn’t mean growers are doing anything bad or immoral. They have to compete. A half century ago, the Pundit’s grandfather was selling Cuban tomatoes, and later, the Pundit Pop sold countless trailers of Puerto Rican tomatoes. Mexico is pretty close.

Yet we should be able to say that there is an issue to deal with without implying moral turpitude on the part of any particular party.

Ms. Mainster also focuses in on the practical point. The specific issue the industry needs to work on is not that the wage per hour is too low — it is that the work is often episodic, irregular or unavailable.

Maybe by working together, we can tie together geographies and make this less true.

Florida tomato growers by and large are business people who are willing to do the right thing. They’ve joined the SAFE program and want to be socially accountable employers. They care about the kids and their families. There are so many factors that can enter what happens. Their profits are a concern. Joining the SAFE program is more than a baby step. Anytime when someone opens the door to their operations and their records, it’s an important statement.

Look, there can always be a few bad eggs but, by and large, the major players we have encountered have looked for ways to do good, not evil. We will deal more with the SAFE program in future issues but, good as it is, it can’t change the fundamental economics of the business. And it is the economics of the business that drives what people get paid.

Florida farmers are keenly aware of the housing problem, but the issue is that housing here is extremely expensive. It won’t get easier; it will get harder. The northern farmers do provide more housing; it’s much more common in northern states. Maybe inspections are easier, I don’t know. When workers leave here, they usually know where they are going to live, say Ohio, with the same grower in the same housing.

Housing remains an issue everywhere. Obviously housing in rural communities is not great. Guys like Jay Taylor or the people at Six L’s build housing for their workers.

The cost of housing is a major issue all over the country. Many cities have enacted various ”affordable housing” ordinances to try to compel builders to build “workforce housing” — housing for policemen, school teachers, nurses, etc.

The problem leaps out: If policemen, school teachers and nurses — all of whom get paid much better than farm laborers — can’t afford decent housing, how will we pay farm laborers enough to do so?

Of course, farm laborers work in the least expensive rural areas but, on the other hand, the housing sits empty part of the year.

We can’t pretend immigration issues don’t relate here.

Looking for housing for H2A workers is not a happy situation. In the H2A program, the worker gets a visa, and 90 percent will be male. His wife and kids won’t get visas. The farmer petitioning has to provide housing. He can have dormitory housing for single men. …

To build housing for a family is very different. The same space housing a husband, wife and two kids could have eight working people in dorm-style living versus two. Wife and kids aren’t getting visas. I’m not worried there won’t be enough kids for our centers; I’m worried about the impact on the fabric of society.

Is this acceptable to Americans? To bring a laboring class in that can be housed cheaply? We don’t actually know. Ms. Mainster worries about the children left behind. What kind of homes will they grow up in while Dad is off in another country laboring hard?

I really like having produce grown in this country where we know what the laws are.

The American consumer pays the least for food than any consumer in the world. We want the lowest prices.

There is little doubt that consumers agree they like American-grown product. In life, though, we don’t just get things we want; we get what we want most. We just got Country of Origin Labeling, so we will find out soon enough — but available evidence is that consumers won’t change purchasing patterns in any significant way.

Could there be a FairTrade type scheme, as we see on some Starbucks Coffee where consumers would voluntarily pay more for a product — if the extra money went to the farm workers? Is there a way to compel higher standards — and protect growers against foreign competitors not required to meet those standards?

Will Americans accept the country becoming more and more dependent on non-US food producers?

Construction is similar to field labor. It’s a profession for young people. Your back is only good for so many years. People work long hard days and weekends. When we face a freeze, it’s terrible for the migrant workers. They don’t get work. They live in fear of deportation, of being sent home. They all want to learn English and prove their worth. Comprehensive immigration reform is what migrant workers need.

In other words, within the context of the current system, the future of illegal immigrants is certainly more determined by immigration policy than by their employers.

Yet the produce industry needs to be honest with itself about immigration reform. Most of the proposals that have been advanced would require farm workers to continue to work on farms for some number of years to gain legal status.

That the law is drafted that way is not an accident — in no small part, it reflects the industry’s concern that if these people were free to legally work anywhere, they might select someplace other than the produce industry.

The broader point here is that part of the cost of sustaining these people is not just paying them when they are young, healthy and strong — they also have to be sustained when they are sick or old or injured. How will that happen? Who will pay for it?

As society becomes more affluent, these kinds of questions will be asked more frequently.

I’ve tried to get an idea of how much money it amounts to. How many tomatoes are sold to fast food places versus elsewhere? It’s a small percentage. Penny a Pound sounds great, but it won’t be on every pound they pick by a long shot. People hear Penny a Pound and don’t have the right impression. It needs to be on a much larger scale for it to make a difference. Really and truly they’ll just stop growing tomatoes here.

Ms. Mainster is exactly correct. On the one hand, she critiques the Penny-a-Pound schemes because they are too insignificant — why in the world should some small fraction of workers get paid more by the quirk of who the ultimate buyer is? This would argue for a generally higher wage rate — not schemes.

On the other hand, she expresses the real concern that the Florida tomato industry is not inevitable — that if you push up wages, Florida won’t be able to compete, and the industry will cease in the state.

It is a real concern and a reasonable one. Which is why the industry finds itself in the midst of a dilemma.

Every time a television news magazine gets an interest, they will run through Florida and attack the industry for the conditions of migrant laborers. And remember the industry will probably be evaluated by the actions of the worst players, not the best.

Yet the situation is really not in control of Florida growers, who have to sell at competitive prices and don’t make all that much money. It is a broad social issue involving the quest for “cheap food”, the willingness to allow foreign competition, our mixed feelings toward immigration and much more.

What we’ve achieved through RCMA has been phenomenal, the good things that have passed because of our relationships with agricultural organizations and growers. Other states should be trying to imitate what we’ve done. Our alliance with tomato growers, citrus growers and other farmers is a big part of our success. A huge coop insurance plan through industry organizations as was suggested in the Perishable Pundit would be a wonderful idea. Much more good can come if we work together in partnership.

Of course, just because something is a big social problem, one that the government and society at large must wrestle with, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying.

We appreciate Ms. Mainster’s attention to our suggestion regarding an innovative insurance scheme. Here is what we wrote as point four of four issues we were discussing in this context:

4) One wonders if there isn’t a role in solving this problem for PMA or United.

Part of the problem is that migrant workers can work for many different employers over the course of only one year — and even more over several years. We need a mechanism whereby these people could participate in one health insurance plan, one 401-K plan, etc., regardless of where they are working that week or that year.

This is not really that difficult. Most unionized terminal markets, for example, have union-run plans in which the particular firm the employee is working for that week has no bearing on the employee’s benefits.

Well, why couldn’t PMA or United offer an industry-wide plan where seasonal or temporary field workers, working for anyone in the business, could keep the same pension and medical plan?

If the nationals aren’t interested, how hard would it be for WGA to extend its already substantial insurance operation to offer such a plan nationally, perhaps in conjunction with other regional associations?

What a great boost for the industry… and for AgJOBS… if we could announce a national initiative to provide health insurance and 401-Ks for our field and packing house labor.

Obviously the growers couldn’t all afford to buy the insurance for everyone, but we could start by offering it as an option that the workers themselves could pay for. At least it would be available to everyone. Over time, just as Wal-Mart wrestles with the issue, we would work on how we can make it affordable for workers.

Issues are often connected, and public opposition to immigrants — legal or illegal — is partly based on the assumption that even if a low-wage worker is gainfully employed, the minute he gets cancer or a heart attack, he’ll be dropped off at the nearest hospital and the public at large will pay for his care either through taxes or higher insurance premiums.

So it can behoove the industry to address these issues, as doing so will help the trade accomplish its pubic policy objectives — such as AgJOBS.

What certainly cannot be contested is that Barbara Mainster and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association has done, is doing and will do truly great things. It is an honor and a privilege for the produce industry to be involved with such an organization.

Press play to view the Redland’s video.


We commend and applaud the many industry participants who have parted with their hard earned money to support this cause. We pray for a future of deeper cooperation with the industry and continued success for Redlands Christian Migrant Association.

We thank Barbara Mainster and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association for sharing their good works with the industry and remind everyone that the organization can be supported here.




Pundit’s Mailbag —
Seeing Through ‘Price Pretence’ Of Wine Taste Study

Our piece, Altered States: How Price/Branding Affect Pleasure Centers, commented on a study finding that people experience physical reactions as a result of their expectations about the experience of drinking wine. Specifically, the study found that subjects drinking a $90 a bottle of wine perceived the wine as more pleasant than drinking the same wine when told it cost only $10 a bottle.

We pointed out that, if confirmed and if the same phenomenon was identified in other areas of experience, this finding would have significant implications for marketing. A letter we received points to some implications we hadn’t considered:

I would submit that for many, the relationship would be just the opposite.

For instance, if I have to pay for a really expensive bottle of wine (at a rate much higher than I am used to), I will intrinsically develop a hostile “show me” attitude. And when the wine is only marginally better, as is frequently the case, I am even more irritated with the manufacturer and the label.

I submit there are many like me who see through this “price pretense.”

Bill Gerlach
Research and Development Director
Melissa’s World Variety Produce
Los Angeles, California

Bill has a creative mind. You could see his point as simply part of the law of averages — after all, the study didn’t find that every single person always reacts this way. It just found that when considered in toto this is the overall experience of a group of people. In other words, Bill — and people like Bill — could experience things differently than the average and it wouldn’t affect the validity of the study.

Actually, though, Bill’s point is completely consistent with the study. If the relevant catalyst for the physical change is expectation, then having been disappointed in the past would possibly change the physical reaction as it would change what one was anticipating.

This research provides a strong argument for branding and for the need to deliver results that consistently exceed expectations.

The study also might be affected by the fact that the study participants were not paying — which is an important point we hadn’t considered.

If the sommelier comes over to your table and says the manager has sent over an exceptional bottle of wine, compliments of the house, perhaps the blood and oxygen will start to flow in one’s medial orbitofrontal cortex at the mere prospect of such a divine drink, and one may well be preconditioned by the high price tag in such a way that one will enjoy the wine more thoroughly.

However, if one is persuaded to purchase the expensive wine, perhaps the emotions will be mixed. If one emotion is expectation of a quality wine and another is fear that one has been ripped off, perhaps the physical effect will be completely different.

If one has often been disappointed with the quality of expensive wines and one has just agreed to pay for one again, then the expectation may be the opposite of what the researchers found.

We thank Bill for raising the issue because it points to a major problem with applying this kind of research to marketing — in focusing on just two variables — the price of the wine and the taste — the study eliminates normal influences such as having to pay for the wine.

Still, really innovative research will inevitably produce more questions than answers. The next step might be a study similar to the one we wrote about, but one in which people are given fixed sums of money to spend on the wine. So a purchase of a $90 bottle of wine might cause some anxiety as it means not buying nine bottles of something else. Ultimately, we may want to test consumers in their real-life shopping and dining venues.

Take a wine, sell it at different price points, then study, psychologically and physically, how people react to drinking it.

Many thanks to Bill for helping us think through this intriguing topic.

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