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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Fraudulent Farmer’s Markets ‘Detrimental To Legitimate Farms, Retailers And To Consumers’

Our piece, Fraud At Farmer’s Markets, focused on the issue of fraud committed by vendors at these markets who sell produce that the vendors claim is grown on their own farm, grown locally, grown without the use of any “sprays” etc., etc., but in reality is conventional produce bought at the local wholesale market. In fact, it is the exact same produce sold by supermarkets except worse because it sits out in a hot parking lot, on a street or in a public park all day.

We received a number of letters. We thought this one particularly thoughtful:

I personally enjoy visiting and shopping at the local farmers market. Lots of beautiful produce can be found there, as well as a few legitimate farmers.

However, as a farmer myself, I have an unfair advantage compared to the average consumer; I can easily see produce that has been purchased by the seller from outside the area, even from Mexico. I know what grows in my area, in what season, and what quality is available here, and what is being brought in from outside the area.

Farmers market consumers are easily misled because they are being told exactly what they want to hear; local, organic, pesticide-free and even sustainable. This may be music to their ears, but for a farmer like me who can see what goes on, local, organic, pesticide-free, and sustainable are words that should send up red flags among consumers. Unfortunately, much of the time these words are very simply not true.

The market managers are focused on making their market a success, and that means a busy market, not necessarily an honest one. The local agricultural commissioner does not have the resources to police these operations and there is much money to be made from eager consumers. Many of these farmers markets are pulling in far more people than the local supermarkets they compete with.

There is another kind of fraud that takes place at the farmers market as well. In most cases, the markets operate under an honor system when it comes to the space rent that is collected. The space rent is often based upon a percentage of sales. This is where the fraud comes in. The market operators simply take the vendor’s word for how much they sold. There is nothing done to verify the actual sales, and many of the vendors I have seen are getting away with paying almost nothing for the space.

The public subsidy of these vendors goes further. The massive appeal of these markets is draining significant business from established supermarkets that make major contributions to the community. These supermarkets have to pay legitimate rent, utilities, worker and liability insurance, health insurance, payroll tax, property tax, income tax, and food safety costs among a myriad of other costs. Many of these businesses donate generously to the local community as well. They are losing business to unfair competitors who do not have to pay these legitimate costs and who oftentimes are selling the same exact produce.

At the farmers market, people don’t seem to notice that the produce is usually transported from the farm (or wherever) in a non-refrigerated vehicle, and that it is displayed all day with no refrigeration to keep it fresh. Most of these farms would fail any kind of food safety audit, and it could be a blessing that the produce they are sneaking in from other growers may have actually come from a third-party-audited farm.

These farmers markets seem to be serving a segment of the population who are happy to subsidize a group of people that provide them with what fits into their ideology of local, organic and sustainable. This fantasy is the perfect setup to make them feel like they are doing their part to save the planet and their families from the evil industrial farmer. This is a serious matter that is detrimental to legitimate farms, retailers and to consumers.

— David Sasuga
Owner
Fresh Origins
San Marcos, California

Part of David’s point is that there is a public-policy concern here. In an age of tight municipal budgets – or for that matter in any age – it is obviously not acceptable to have people cheating on the fees due to the municipality.

This is especially true when these fees are in lieu of rent and taxes, which competitive vendors have to pay to sell fresh produce in stores.

Of course, we would make the point stronger by asking what business any municipality has in giving any particular group of vendors control of municipal property. If a city feels it doesn’t need to keep its parks open on a Saturday or thinks it OK to block off a street, the right thing to do is auction off the use of the property for lawful purposes.

Maybe a farmer’s market operator will win out, or maybe someone who wants to sell used books or an art fair or even a supermarket that wants to bid on the property to open a temporary store. Not to do so is just to leave money on the table or, more specifically, to provide a subsidy to a politically favored industry.

We actually see no public-policy purpose being served by the rule that only farmers selling their own product can rent booths in these markets. Why shouldn’t Wegmans be able to gather in product from all its many local vendors and offer them for sale in this venue?

The whole setup is arbitrary. A farmer with a willing spouse, healthy parents and lots of children to provide free labor will find the opportunity to sell at a farmer’s market to be lucrative. A childless widow running the farm may well think it wiser to sell her product through a distributor or direct to someone like Wegmans. For what conceivable reason should the public provide a subsidy to one of these farmers but not the other?

As to the core issue of our first piece in this series, consumers being defrauded, David’s letter follows logically on one of David’s areas of concern. David kicked off our coverage of a most controversial area when he sent along an article that we included in a piece titled, ‘Spiked’ Organic Fertilizer Raises Consumer Doubs About Organic Definition.

He also followed up with a letter during the same conversation that we included in our piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — As ‘Spiked’ Organic Fertilizer Investigation Widens, Potential Grows For Weaker Consumer Confidence In All Fresh Produce.

In that letter, David pointed out why the whole industry needed to be concerned about a possible deception being perpetrated against organic consumers:

This is more than just a quirky organic produce issue. While it remains a tiny percentage of overall production and sales, organic produce gets top billing with the media these days.

Consumer trust in any kind of fresh produce concerns all of us, and when the organic leadership and organic certifiers are not willing to do the right thing, it hurts everyone in the produce business as we continue to face major challenges in maintaining consumer confidence in the integrity and safety of fresh produce.

The same logic, of course, applies to consumers being defrauded at farmer’s markets.

One of the most valuable assets the industry has is the public trust for farmers. That is why Ocean Spray and Blue Diamond have farmers in their ads, and it is why every time some television program wants to interview an industry rep, we find a farmer in jeans, not a Gucci-shoed, Brioni-suited lobbyist to make the trade’s case.

If we have a group of farmers, or even faux farmers, that start getting busted — as NBCLA did by catching the miscreants in the Los Angeles area — it will gradually make farmers, fruit and vegetable farmers especially, look like cheats.

As this is a local issue with national implications, perhaps our national associations should consider establishing a position and task force on this matter. They could insist on one of two things: Either the farmer’s markets be open to everyone — so Schnucks or Kroger could buy a booth and sell produce if desired. Further that procedures be established to make sure everyone is paying rent and taxes. They could charge a flat fee for rent or they could sell tickets as they do at carnivals and make that the only legal tender at the Farmer’s Market.

Alternatively, if the farmer’s markets are to be reserved for farmers selling their own product, those rules need to be strictly enforced. Perhaps some arrangement could be made whereby the vendors pay a user fee to have everyone properly vetted, which would include random site inspections on the farms and review of any promotional claims — such as “organic” or “sustainable” or “no spray” that might be used. The key is that authorization to display should not be in the hands of the management of the farmer’s market as they have a conflict of interest and might be tempted to bend the rules to fill up the market or keep a popular vendor. It also seems that these markets ought to do something on food safety — even if it is just requiring those growers who are exempt from the recent food safety law to declare that on a sign.

When we ran the article indicating the fraud going on at farmer’s markets, several supermarket chains inquired about doing reprints. They know they are in competition with these farmer’s markets and that the playing field isn’t level. If the supermarket association, FMI, takes the lead here, it will come out as big business against the farmers. Maybe United and/or PMA could start a coalition, though, to make these points more forcefully. It certainly seems as if the status quo — more and more farmer’s markets with many phony farmers defrauding consumers — is not an acceptable situation.

Many thanks to David Sasuga and Fresh Origins for helping to advance the thinking of the trade on this important issue.




“Buying Direct” Is Not The Same As “Buying Local” — C.H. Robinson, Wal-Mart And The Perils Of Public Disclosure

Among the many achievements of the Pundit Poppa, is that he was, banana giants aside, the first person to take a produce company public. He also took it private again.

Such thoughts occur as we review C.H. Robinson’s recent press release announcing its Fourth Quarter Results. The release contained these lines:

For the fourth quarter, our Sourcing revenues decreased 6.5 percent. Sourcing net revenues decreased 4.2 percent to $31.7 million in 2010 from $33.1 million in 2009, primarily due to decreased volumes with a large customer.

Sourcing in this case refers to C.H. Robinson’s produce division as opposed to transportation. The “large customer” is Wal-Mart.

In the conference call, C.H. Robinson CEO and Chairman of the Board, John Wiehoff, elaborated:

Sourcing — As discussed in our press release, our sourcing net revenues for the quarter, decreased by 4%. We discussed on past calls that our largest sourcing customer, Wal-Mart, has a very comprehensive global sourcing initiative in process that’s impacting our relationship. Their global sourcing re-alignment has resulted in lost business for us.

There is really not anything new for us to add to our past comments. We continue to work through the transition with them and look for new ways to grow with them. But we do expect to continue to experience declines in volume and net revenue until the transition is complete later this year.

There is some new and exciting growth in our sourcing division that is also driving new revenue for our transportation services, and we remain very positive about the longer term opportunities to create value with our sourcing services.

Being a public company offers enormous advantages. It gives a company access to capital; it can do acquisitions with stock and pay its employees with stock, etc.

It also sometimes requires companies to make disclosures they never would if they were private companies, as is this case with this press release. Just try to remember the last time a private company announced that its biggest customer was reducing purchases!

As it happens, the announcement was widely misinterpreted. CHR was careful to explain that its biggest customer, Wal-Mart, had a new procurement policy, and it was electing to buy more “direct” rather than through C.H. Robinson.

Editors and analysts who don’t really understand what is going on quickly assumed that buying “direct” is the same thing as buying “local” and so, very quickly you started seeing headlines claiming that CHR’s produce business was dropping because Wal-Mart was buying local.

In fact “local” and “direct” are not synonyms, and CHR’s drop in produce sales to Wal-Mart has very little to do with any local procurement.

First, once one gets past the propaganda and removes statistical aberrations, such as Salinas lettuce counting as local in California stores, Wal-Mart buys comparatively little locally grown produce.

Second, C.H. Robinson traditionally owned no farms or packing sheds — to use the parlance of transportation, it was not an asset-based vendor—so if the issue was simply geography and that Wal-Mart wanted to source more from certain places, C.H. Robinson would be well suited to supply Wal-Mart’s needs. If local is the priority, one would expect CHR’s sales to Wal-Mart to increase as it would be far more flexible than the big grower-shippers whose strength is their great land base.

The issue here is not local buying but a decision by Wal-Mart to value less the technology and services that surround a purchase of fresh produce. As a result, Wal-Mart is deeply focused on buying cheap. To put it another way, C.H. Robinson is selling less to Wal-Mart because C.H. Robinson doesn’t want to sell more produce at the price Wal-Mart wants to pay.

We dealt with this issue back in August, 2009, when Wal-Mart was beginning to roll out the new system with a pilot program procuring Washington apples. Some of the pieces we ran at that time include these:

SPECIAL EDITION — Wal-Mart’s Global Food Sourcing Initiative Closes The Peterson Era And Threatens Sustainability Of Agricultural Base

Flaws In Wal-Mart’s Produce-Procurement Thinking

Wal-Mart’s Blind And Costly Focus On FOB’s

Wal-Mart Produce Procurement ‘Set Up For Devastating End’

The long and short of it is that C.H. Robinson built a brilliant “front end” for produce procurement. It could deliver information and services to Wal-Mart that most other vendors could not approach.

For better or worse, Wal-Mart’s philosophy changed and that change in philosophy ultimately led to the departure of Bruce Peterson, who, back when Wal-Mart had only seven supercenters, partnered with many companies, including C.H. Robinson, to build what was arguably the most sophisticated produce supply and procurement operation on the planet.

This change in philosophy created a problem for many companies because Wal-Mart became fixated on getting the lowest price for everything it bought. This meant it was no longer as open as it once was to the argument that a given vendor, by virtue of its variety, its brand, its technology or its services, was providing a value that was worth paying more for.

Right now, with much of Mexico frozen over, we hear every day from friends who are cutting shipments to Wal-Mart first. These are often the same friends who, when hurricanes and freezes would hit a few years ago, were on the phones pleading with us to help them charter 747s filled with produce from other countries so they could seamlessly supply Wal-Mart and honor their obligations to keep their assigned DCs functioning.

That is, however, ancient history, and it is very difficult to prove that one would not have out-of-stocks, etc., if the procurement system is different.

Jim Lemke, who holds the title of Senior Vice President Sourcing at C.H. Robinson and built the system that helped build Wal-Mart, is a shrewd fellow, and there is no doubt that he has seen this day coming for a long time and has been managing with an eye on not merely enduring this shift but also triumphing in this new environment.

This is no stranger to our readers. Back in October of 2009 we ran a piece in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, on the occasion of C.H. Robinson’s acquisition of Rosemont Farms that was titled Advantage Shifts to Production:

C.H. Robinson is unusual in the industry, as it has shown an uncanny ability to remake itself to stay in sync with where the industry is moving. When this author was a young buck cutting his eyeteeth on the business in the Hunts Point Market, C.H. Robinson had an office down the hall. It functioned as a broker, and the primary difference between C.H. Robinson and any other broker was simply that it had many offices around the country.

Yet in the ensuing decades, the produce operations of C.H. Robinson were transformed as it developed technology enabling it to serve as the “front-end” of a Wal-Mart supply chain that would forever transform the way produce procurement was done. With the development of the Corporate Procurement and Distribution Services (CPDS) Division, it built a model in produce where it did not own production — not unlike the model it developed in transportation where it is a leading, non-asset-based transportation company.

Yet industries evolve and the acquisition of Rosemont Farms, following up on its acquisition of FoodSource in 2005, is a clear sign the model is about to shift.

The problem, though, is that purchasing companies is the easy part. Buying packers/shippers, much less produce growers, and earning a return on capital that will be appealing to the shareholders of C.H. Robinson is another matter entirely.

Selling the value of intellectual capital as CHR has been doing typically provides a very high return on invested capital. Buying a farm is a different kind of ball game.

So C.H. Robinson is doing what it can to continue to provide value to Wal-Mart and its other customers, with its branding program, its acquisition of FoodSource, Rosemont Farms explorations of new ways to integrate its logistics capabilities with its produce sourcing expertise.

And, with recent staff changes at Wal-Mart, executives at CHR surely hope they will have new opportunities to prove they can deliver value in ways other than simply offering the cheapest price.

Considering that when we launched PRODUCE BUSINESS 25 years ago, the produce division of C.H. Robinson was just a string of brokerage offices, Lemke’s achievements and those of C. H. Robinson are substantial.

Maybe the pendulum will swing back and retail executives at Wal-Mart and other places will find new value in C.H. Robinson’s intellectual property, or maybe the shoots planted in C.H. Robinson’s acquisitions will burgeon and grow.

One thing we can be certain of is that Wal-Mart’s desire to buy cheap is the mover here. This poses a problem for the industry as it reduces the incentive for investment in varieties, brands, growing techniques, services and technology that could lead to a more delightful consumer experience.

Because C.H. Robinson is a public company and Wal-Mart its largest produce customer, we have been given a little insight into how a sophisticated vendor is affected by Wal-Mart’s new procurement policy. We know many others are being impacted but have no obligation to issue press releases.

There is a real question as to whether buying cheap is really going to help Wal-Mart. There is a bigger question as to what the deleterious effects might be on the whole industry if industry firms reorganize to meet Wal-Mart’s new hierarchy of value.

As Wal-Mart grew, firms that became direct suppliers to Wal-Mart had to become much more than produce growers and packers. They had to start thinking about the supply chain and satisfying consumers. They became better companies. It will not be good for the industry if produce firms start to lose that competency.

C.H. Robinson is a giant with unique capabilities and it is likely to do just fine. The same cannot be said for the firms not issuing press releases.

Thinking about all this in the context of locally grown is a distortion and misunderstanding.




Another Video Parody… This Time On Growers And Marketing Agents

Our piece, Video of Terminal Market Wholesalers Does Not Portray Their True Function, brought some laughs by playing off the stereotypes associated with terminal market buyers.

Now we owe a hat tip to Chris Puentes, President at Interfresh, Inc., who saw the terminal market video and sent another one along. This one, produced by “Canjela” is titled “Produce Salesman” and plays on the dynamic that occurs between a grower and his marketing agent.

This one shrewdly plays on stereotypes on both sides of the conversation. The sales rep who has an explanation for everything, including some improbable claims and the grower who cries poverty but, somehow, isn’t poverty-stricken.

Although these stereotypes wouldn’t be funny if there wasn’t a tad of truth to them, it is also true that few would stay in business if they were really all excuses all the time.

Toward the end of the video, the salesman identifies an item with great prices: Organic mini-Japanese albino eggplant, and the grower points out that it is a low volume item. In fact the salesman advised not increasing the production of that item during the planning session because of fear it would break the market.

Which it would have. The Pundit Poppa always said the produce industry was a very tough business because when one was getting high prices, it was typically because one had limited quantities available to sell. On the other hand, when one had low prices, it was typically because one had a lot of product to sell.

Many thanks to Chris Puentes for passing this along:




Tips On Chemotherapy

Jan Fleming, whose travails we have mentioned here, here, and here, recently let her friends and family know that she was soon to start chemotherapy.

When we ran the piece about the Pundit Poppa and his illness, which we titled Never Tell Me The Odds: One Man, One Disease, One Battle, we provided a mechanism for people to send both notes and healthful advice. We will certainly answer everyone but it will take awhile as we received so many kind and helpful thoughts from all around the world.

One letter that we thought valuable to share with Jan and her husband, Tim, also seemed valuable to share with everyone as, of course, a cancer diagnosis is a stranger to few families. Often that means chemotherapy.

This note came from Virginia (Ginny) Morton of Tallman Family Farms in Tower City, Pennsylvania. Like so many of the friends we have come to know through the Pundit, Ginny’s nephew, Nathan Tallman, contacted us when we mentioned that we would be on a family trip visiting theme parks in Pennsylvania, in a piece entitled, Lessons From Hershey's Chocolate. Nathan invited the Pundit family to spend some time at their farm. The Jr. Pundits remember the fun they had when Ginny’s husband Larry took the boys on four-wheelers through the forest, and the boys still speak with reverence of the delicious French fries we were served at the farm — all made from the farm’s trademark Tallman’s Special Frying Potatoes. Jr. Pundit primo, aka William, still thinks he owns the place since it is located in the Williams Valley.

Having spent such a lovely day on the farm it was a pleasure to get a note from Ginny, and we thought it so helpful we wanted to share it:

We at Tallman Potatoes are rooting for your family and your Dad all the way. (Remember you visited our “William’s” Valley a few years ago with your wife and boys!)

I, too went through cancer five years ago and will include my chemotherapy DO’s and DON’T’s for your Dad’s consideration. He can take what he wants and leave the rest behind.

With cancer, it is ALL about your attitude. My best friend’s Dad was diagnosed with inoperable esophageal cancer at age 81 and after 6 very strong chemo treatments he is alive and well at age 92! I have another friend here in Pennsylvania, who has pancreatic cancer and was given a death sentence 5 years ago, and she too is still alive and living with the cancer. It continues to progress but her faith in God and desire to live keeps it at bay.

Here goes with my tips. And may God Bless you, your family and your Dad.

1) DO drink as much liquid as you possibly can. Every time I went potty, I MADE myself drink at least 10 ounces of water. I found it easier just to chug it. If I sipped it I never drank enough. Drink whatever tastes good. I found that Ovaltine and milk tasted good. Sometimes I liked V-8 and lots and lots of chocolate milk shakes. Remember three words: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

2) DO sleep whenever it hits you. I found that the steroids they gave me (Dexamethasone) destroyed my night time sleep. I would often be wide awake at midnight, but during the day I would doze whenever I felt sleepy and that’s how I managed. Several nights I was up all night long. Not fun, but I found stuff to do.

3) DO shave your head when you start to lose your hair. (About three weeks after your first dose.) It’s easier than watching it fall out and get thinner every day.

4) DO get some comfortable hats that you can pull down over the top of your ears, because your head will get cold with no hair.

5) DO get Senocot to help with constipation. I found that after every dose if I took one Senocot pill at night for two days after the treatment, I avoided constipation.

6) DO Get Biotene mouthwash. Use it often to take away the bad taste in your mouth and avoid mouth sores.

7) DO use sunblock whenever you go out. I managed to get overexposed to sun twice during my treatments after only ten minutes in the sun. NOT FUN!! You won’t believe how sun-sensitive your skin becomes. It doesn’t burn or anything but will give you a horrible rash and peel off.

8) DO be careful with all sharp objects. Wear rubber gloves when cooking and cutting. Get Neosporin and use it on every little nick or cut to avoid infection. Watch for hangnails especially. If you suspect an infection, call your doctor IMMEDIATELY.

9) DO take your temperature four times a day — when you get up, before lunch, before supper and add bedtime. If it is ever over 100.4 degrees F., call your doctor. My doctor allowed me to take Tylenol for pain and headaches (which you will probably get). But if you take Tylenol you must take your temperature before you take it because it will suppress any fever.

10) DO be good to yourself. Remember that right now “it’s all about You”. Your family and friends will understand and remember to take advantage of every offer to help. This is not a time to be shy about asking for help. Don’t try to be a hero, just take it easy, read if you can, “veg out” if you can, sleep when you can.

11) DON’T eat at salad bars or buffets. I was very careful when eating out to never eat any fresh salads — only cooked foods. I didn’t eat at buffets because I didn’t want food that had been sitting out.

12) I really ate very little raw fruits or vegetables. Only watermelon and bananas. I was afraid that they might have too high a bacteria count. I ate tons of canned fruit and cooked vegetables.

13) Say your prayers or meditate at night — it will help you quit thinking about cancer and make you feel better. The 23rd Psalm became my mantra.

14) Cry when you feel like it. Take comfort from your friends and family.... now is YOUR time.

15) TAKE a walk every day — even if it is only a few blocks. You will feel better out in nature.

16) Chew gum — it helps with the dry mouth and bad taste in your mouth.

— Virginia Morton
Tallman Family Farms, LLC
Tower City, Pennsylvania

We thank Ginny so much for this useful guide. The Pundit Mom printed it out and refers to it often. We did a drug store trip with it in hand. We also note that Ginny mentions the important of attitude, thus endorsing the point we made in our piece Dr. Sloan Misses The Point: A Fighting Spirit Is Vital In Overcoming Illness.

She also points out the dangers of fresh foods and salad bars to people with compromised immune systems, a caveat to the general rule encouraging fresh produce consumption that the industry, ethically, has an obligation to make clear.

Mostly, though, Ginny’s letter demonstrates what a really wonderful industry this is. When you have cancer, one is reminded of how precious time is, and doubtless Virginia Morton had more fun things to do the day she wrote this note than remember her battle with cancer. That she took the time to write this and send us was a great kindness to the Pundit family and, now, because we are publishing this, it is a kindness to whole world.

Many thanks to Ginny Morton and all our friends at Tallman Family Farms




Pundit’s Mailbag —
Fighting Spirit And The Challenge To Live

Our piece, Dr. Sloan Misses The Point: A Fighting Spirit Is Vital In Overcoming Illness, brought many notes. Some just found the subject interesting:

Kudos on the February 2, 2011, edition of the Perishable Pundit.

From your assessment of Dr. Sloan’s comments on the “Fighting Spirit” to the great video focused on trading with Terminal Markets, it was thought-provoking and interesting.

Keep up the great work.

— Chuck Zambito
Proprietor
Zambito Produce Sales
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Others thought we were on target. A noted editor of a respected journal of technology and science in Washington, DC, one that has published our own work on food safety here, thought our critique on the money:

I read with interest your commentary on Richard Sloan’s New York Times piece. Kudos—you’re exactly right.

Mr. Sloan has written skeptically for years about religious belief and medicine (the subject of his 2006 book Blind Faith), and here extends his argument to cover the wider range of beliefs and feelings. But he ignores the growing body of scientific evidence that shows that depression and sickness can reinforce one another. Such findings should surprise no one: we are psychophysical unities.

Moreover, his argument in the Times fails in just the way you describe. Seeking treatment, seeking good treatment, putting up with a treatment regimen and its side effects—these require at least a belief that all the effort is worthwhile, that the treatment might succeed and that life is worth living, so successful treatment is desirable.

No responsible commentator would claim that beliefs, feelings, or a “fighting spirit” are sufficient for successful medical treatment. But they can be necessary preconditions for successful treatment.

— Adam Keiper
Editor
The New Atlantis
Washington, DC

One note stood out as simply brilliant:

I love science but sometimes those of us with a Ph.D. and/or an M.D. are just full of ourselves.

I think that Dr. Sloan would benefit from reading some of Viktor Frankl’s accounts of the will to survive in Holocaust victims.

Then again, in part we might measure the level, quality and/or attitude of caregivers toward positively disposed individuals or ones with loving attentive families.

I always thought it a bit beyond chance that Jefferson and Adams both died on July 4th, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Exclusively a statistical anomaly, really!

Humans are the “Ultimate Resource” in even more ways than Julian Simon intended.

—Robert Stovicek
President
PrimusLabs
Santa Maria, California

That would be Robert Stovicek Ph.D. writing the note!

Our list of ways in which a “fighting spirit” could help one survive a serious illness was mostly quite practical, and in raising the question of how an ill person’s attitude affects the attitudes and actions of caregivers and family and friends, Bob continues in that vein. There are exceptions, but if a patient gives up on himself, how much more likely are others to give up on the patient as well?

Viktor Frankl was a neurologist, psychiatrist and a concentration camp survivor. He wrote many books and his Man’s Search for Meaning, his most well-known work, chronicles how he and others found a reason to live even in the despair of the concentration camp and its aftermath. This book is considered one of the most influential books ever written and well worth reading.

Frankl’s key conclusion, around which he built logotherapy—the third great school of psychoanalytic thought along with those of Freud and Adler—was that even in the most horrible and debased of situations, life includes the potential for meaning. This fact makes even horrible suffering meaningful. Put another way, Frankl explained what makes people give up and simply die. Yet he also explained why human beings can and should fight to live, despite despair.

That Frankl believed in the “fighting spirit” is of little doubt. He wrote that “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man — his courage and hope, or lack of them — and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”

He also tried to give a guide map for dealing with suffering. He explained that “When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.”

In Man’s Search for Meaning, there is a story of how when Frankl was sent to the concentration camp he had sewed into the lining of his coat the unpublished manuscript of his first book. But the Nazis took his clothes and gave him the rags of a prisoner who had just been sent to the gas chamber.

He despaired, as he had no children and now no work of intellectual brilliance to bequeath to the world. As the odds of surviving the camp were only 1 in 28 — less than the odds of surviving pancreatic cancer — Frankl’s life seemed to him meaningless and pointless. Why endure the misery of the camp only to die in a gas chamber or as a slave laborer having contributed nothing to the world.

Yet in the pocket of the ragged coat he had been given he found not his precious manuscript but instead a single page torn from a prayer book containing the Shema Yisrael, considered the most important Jewish prayer.

It begins this way:

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

Blessed be His Name whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever

And thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon they heart;

And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt speak of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand; and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thine house, and upon thy gates.

Frankl wrote: “How should I have interpreted such a “coincidence” other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?

How Dr. Sloan could dismiss the sheer will to life that kept so many fighting during the Holocaust is, indeed, a question Dr. Stovicek is right to pose.

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We’ve written about Julian Simon before in pieces such as this one, mostly in connection with the famous Simon-Ehrlich wager. Simon was a business professor; Ehrlich a biologist. Ehrlich wrote a book called, The Population Bomb which basically said that the world was being overrun with people and catastrophe was around the corner due to a shortage of resources. Famously Julian and Ehrlich bet on the price of a basket of metals, Julian saying they would go down and Ehrlich up. Despite the fact that Ehrlich was permitted to choose the commodities in the bet and select the date the bet would be finished, and despite the fact that the population did grow substantially, prices still went down. Ehrlich’s other claims such as that there would be mass famine with “hundreds of millions of people starving to death” also did not come true.

Julian Simon’s book, The Ultimate Resource turned on its head the conventional wisdom that people were a burden on the planet. Simon argued that people, with their ability to create and innovate, are the solution to problems of scarcity, not their cause.

Now Robert Stovicek goes beyond the obvious creative abilities of human beings and, looking at the statistically improbable deaths of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, suggests that the human will contains forces we know not how to measure.

The mystery of Thomas Jefferson and John Adam’s deaths has been wrestled with by many. Perhaps none more clearly and methodically than Margaret P. Battin in her famous essay excerpted from her book, “July 4, 1826: Explaining The Same-Day Deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,&rquo; excerpted from her book, Ending Life: Ethics And The Way We Die.You can read the excerpt here.

She doesn’t resolve the question, and her purpose in defining six possible explanations is really to discuss bioethical issues. She acknowledges, though, that any resolution must, in fact, “attend to the remarkable synchrony of their deaths.”

With little or no evidence of easily explainable things — say joint suicide — one is left with… as Dr. Stovicek intimates… the thought that it is “a bit beyond chance that Jefferson and Adams both died on July 4th, 1826 exactly 50 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.”

Perhaps in seeking to limit the influence of a “fighting spirit” upon an illness, Dr. Sloan ought also to acknowledge the limitations of the surveys and studies he points to, as science, that supposedly prove his case.

Many thanks to Chuck Zambito, Adam Keiper and Robert Stovicek for helping us think through this important issue.

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