When we contributed to the National Public Radio piece, Wal-Mart Helps Small Farms Supply Local Foods, and followed up with our piece, Wal-Mart’s Heritage Agriculture Program Gets Good Press But Doesn’t Make A Dent, one of the interesting side effects was we received phone calls from a few of the farmers participating in Wal-Mart’s Heritage Agriculture program.
The main topic of our discussions: The danger of over-reliance on one customer. This is always a danger and, in this case, we think the danger is acute.
We remember as a young man in the business learning from the Poppa Pundit to avoid over-concentration. Among many activities, our family business had an operation that imported Chilean fruit. We were commissioned sales agents for a diverse group of Chilean exporters. We had grown the business over the years the old fashioned way — we performed. Each season we would issue our “account sales” to our shippers and they seemed to share them with their friends, other exporters, down in Chile. Those who out-performed — meaning they got a little better return than others — also got a few additional shippers and a larger share of the crop the following season.
Well, one of our shippers had become very large and we handled only a small percentage of its fruit. Our solid performance led to an offer. They would give us their full crop on an exclusive basis — which was substantially more fruit than we were currently handling. The caveat? They wanted us to drop all our other shippers and work exclusively with them.
The Poppa Pundit didn’t even hesitate before rejecting the offer. First, he wasn’t prepared to drop like a hot potato people and companies we had worked with for decades just because a better offer came along. That was not — and is not — his style.
Beyond those ethics, he just saw it as bad business. With a diverse group of shippers, our business was sustainable. If one went broke or was bought out or became dissatisfied with us, we had many other shippers from which to rebuild. If we had signed up with this one giant shipper, where would we have been if the company decided to open its own sales office or was sold or simply didn’t love us anymore?
Of course, that was a dramatic situation in which we had to choose. Most of the time those who have become overly dependent on Wal-Mart business didn’t do anything but serve their customers. If a shipper started out working with Wal-Mart when it had seven supercenters and had 25% of the business Wal-Mart did for its commodity, if all the supplier has done is hold on to the same percentage of business as Wal-Mart has grown to 2,772 supercenters in the US, it is almost certain that Wal-Mart is the overwhelming percentage of its business.
The problem with the Heritage Agriculture projects and, more generally, the local purchases is that Wal-Mart’s purpose in getting into the program is almost surely not to “help the farmer.” The good PR is a welcome side effect, but Wal-Mart wants to make money.
Perhaps as long as these things are inconsequential, Wal-Mart will let it ride but, surely, as soon as there is a significant amount of money to be made by pressing hard for discounts, Wal-Mart will start pressing hard.
A fair number of organic farmers have refused to sell Wal-Mart. Sometimes this is anti-Wal-Mart ideology, but sometimes it is a business decision, not dissimilar to the one the Poppa Pundit made a long time ago to A) Stick with business partners who have worked with you through the years and B) Not allow one’s business to become over-concentrated with one client.
Our advice to those who called us: 1) Start looking for other customers to diversify your customer base 2) Don’t make capital investments on the assumption you will have Wal-Mart business to pay off the loan 3) Save your money in case you suddenly have to go a season without growing product, and 4) Don’t plant a seed unless you have a signed contract that will be profitable for you.
Last year, the proposal to bring a national generic marketing program to the produce industry was a big focus of contention. We ran many articles, many letters, but of all we wrote about, one letter hangs with us.
It was a note sent from Bill Vogel, President at Tavilla Sales LA in Los Angeles. We titled the piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — Generic Promotion Plan Does Not Allow For Differentiation, and his letter went as follows:
The Produce for Better Health Foundation might have had more success in increasing consumption if we would have produced a cantaloupe that actually tasted like the muskmelon I have eaten as a kid instead of like the cardboard we now often experience; or if the consumer would have picked up a peach from Chile that wasn’t tasteless and brown in the center; and yes, even in our (my) business with mangos, there is nothing more tasty than a ripe mouthwatering Kent, yet the demand is for the hard, fibrous Tommy variety.
Point is the industry has not helped much. However, there are signs that point to the direction we need to take. Look at the increase in consumption of ripe avocados, or the “Summeripe” fruit program, and yes even in our mango business this year with the yellow ataulfo tasty mango and the support of the National Mango Board. Increases here are off the charts.
So, I agree with you — the industry needs to go back to the drawing board; we need to look at the taste and flavor of the product we are delivering and after we have done all this, then we need all segments of the industry at the table to discuss the concept of generic promotion.
Good job here!
— Bill Vogel
Tavilla Sales LA
Los Angeles, California
The point of the letter is that increasing consumption is not just a matter of clever promotional schemes; it has to do with having a product that consumers will enjoy, value and want to purchase again. Part of this is some of the long term issues that Bill mentions — what varieties we grow and promote.
Yet we would say that the produce industry is often its biggest enemy. The thirst for short term boosts in sales leads both producers and retailers to enter into a kind of “unholy alliance” in which consumers wind up getting substandard product.
Recently the Jr. Pundits were in a neighborhood SuperTarget store with Mrs. Pundit and thought they had found nirvana: The store featured a large display of apples — a Jr. Pundit favorite — packed in appealing boxes covered with the Toy Story 3 characters. As this movie is the current rave in their demographic, there was little chance that Mrs. Pundit was getting out of that store without a box or two.
Unfortunately the apples went uneaten. Part of the problem was that the beautiful box that attracted the Jr. Pundits also obscured the fruit. So the bruises and soft spots weren’t obvious. But the apples also had no crunch and were mealy. There are few things worse for the industry than disappointing children with the quality of our products. How can we avoid this in the future?
The first problem is that it is not clear that these apples, marked as Washington Extra Fancy Gala apples, which means they would have been harvested last September, are being properly reinspected for quality. If you note the Washington Apple Commission website lists Galas as being “stocked September through May” and out of season in July and August.
Now our storage technologies are incredible and sometimes a good CA apple is better than an import — but not all are and, sometimes, both can be bad.
We have no way of knowing when these apples were sold to Target or by whom. The shipper could have sold them two months ago and they could have been sitting at Target or at a wholesaler deteriorating. Or they could have been sold right from the shipper last week.
If they were shipped in the same condition that we bought them, this is unforgivable. It is guaranteed to disappoint customers and is an indication that the industry in Washington State needs a better mechanism for ensuring quality on end-of-season shipments.
Of course, however they were purchased, there is a question of what they are doing on display at Target. Another way of putting this question is who, at store level, has a financial incentive to recommend pulling those apples off the floor and dumping them? Or does everyone have an incentive to sell them — regardless of the eating experience the consumer will realize?
Finally there is the issue of why this mega-display of apples is sitting on the floor outside of refrigeration. Maybe this was Target’s idea or maybe a shipper, anxious to move these old apples before the new crop, offered special incentives for an order too large and too prominent to be accommodated on the refrigerated display.
This is always questionable. Frieda Caplan gave a speech years ago to the Washington state apple growers asking, in light of the many millions spent to refrigerate apples at warehouse and in transport, how could the industry tolerate displays at retail out of refrigeration?
Yet, even if peak-of-condition apples, in venues with rapid movement, can get away with dry display without affecting the consumer experience, it really is not arguable that at this late date, refrigeration would enhance the shelf life and quality of these apples.
That being the case, a requirement for refrigeration should be non-negotiable.
That it is, obviously, negotiable, explains a great deal about why it is so hard to move the needle on consumption. As Shakespeare wrote:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…”
Organizations such as the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent have missions that include making young people aware of the opportunities that exist for them to work in the produce industry. There may be a bigger opportunity for this than we realized as a new study indicates that many students from farm families and from the broader farm culture are not particularly valued at some of America’s most elite colleges.
Russell K. Nieli works for Princeton’s highly regarded James Madison Program in American Ideals. He has written an essay titled, How Diversity Punishes Asians, Poor Whites and Lots of Others, for the “Minding Our Campus” website of the Center for the American University at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The piece analyzes a new study that focuses on the effect of affirmative action on poor white children and Asians. We will leave that analysis to another venue.
But we noted that Dr. Nieli also picked up on an anti-farm culture attitude in these elite institutions:
… what Espenshade and Radford found in regard to what they call “career-oriented activities” was truly shocking even to this hardened veteran of the campus ideological and cultural wars. Participation in such Red State activities as high school ROTC, 4-H clubs, or the Future Farmers of America was found to reduce very substantially a student’s chances of gaining admission to the competitive private colleges in the NSCE database on an all-other-things-considered basis.
The admissions disadvantage was greatest for those in leadership positions in these activities or those winning honors and awards. “Being an officer or winning awards” for such career-oriented activities as junior ROTC, 4-H, or Future Farmers of America, say Espenshade and Radford, “has a significantly negative association with admission outcomes at highly selective institutions.” Excelling in these activities “is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission.”
Espenshade and Radford don’t have much of an explanation for this find, which seems to place the private colleges even more at variance with their stated commitment to broadly based campus diversity. In his Bakke ruling, Lewis Powell was impressed by the argument Harvard College offered defending the educational value of a demographically diverse student body: “A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.”
The Espenshade/Radford study suggests that those farm boys from Idaho would do well to stay out of their local 4-H clubs or FFA organizations — or if they do join, they had better not list their membership on their college application forms. This is especially true if they were officers in any of these organizations. Future farmers of America don’t seem to count in the diversity-enhancement game played out at some of our more competitive private colleges, and are not only not recruited, but seem to be actually shunned. It is hard to explain this development other than as a case of ideological and cultural bias.
We’ve always found the argument for diversity in college admissions to be intellectually questionable. Sure the blending of lots of different perspectives could enrich an environment, but a college is specifically a place of intellectual pursuit and we’ve never heard of one single college trying to increase the number of, say, conservatives or libertarians or any other ideology attending the campus because they want to make sure every class has vibrant intellectual diversity. Instead diversity is typically used as a code word for racial balance — and we were always more interested in a person’s ideas than the color of his or her skin.
If this study is correct and elite colleges are looking down on high school leaders in organizations such as Future Farmers of America, 4-H and high school ROTC, it is further evidence that the admission committees have little interest in the kind of diversity that really might matter and are only interested in what they perceive as “good statistics” — showing racial balance.
We actually believe that societal interests are best served by avoiding giving admission committees much flexibility. When the Pundit parents were growing up in New York City, they went to the then-free City College system, which was popularly known as the “Poor Man’s Harvard” and graduated such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Felix Frankurter, Irving Kristol, Bernard Malamud, Jonas Salk, Andy Grove and many others.
What was interesting about the admissions system back then was that there was no mystery. Most students got in based on their high school grades, and the score needed for entry was known. Because there was recognition that some students matured later and so might not have a high GPA, there was a “second chance,” whereby one could also take an entrance exam. Finally, many who didn’t qualify for admission to one of the four-year colleges — The City College, Brooklyn College, Hunter College and Queens College — did qualify for entry into either a “general studies” program at the four-year colleges or into one of the two-year community colleges. If a student took an academic program at the Community Colleges and performed well, he could transfer to a four-year college.
Many colleges have special needs — and we understand waiving requirements to get a bassoon player for the school orchestra or a forward for the basketball team. But allowing admission committees unbridled discretion is likely to lead to bias — like valuing an officer of the FFA or 4-H Club or high school ROTC as a lesser candidate than the officer of a club more in line with the admission committee’s social biases.
As you might imagine here at the Pundit, we are set up with all kinds of feeds and subscriptions to keep us abreast of as much as possible within our sphere of professional interest.
Most of it, of course, is exactly what we expected but, every once in awhile, something serendipitous crosses our screen.
One of the key words, or tags, we search for is “farmer,” and we receive many inputs every day. Recently, however, a feed sent us a piece under farmer and it turned out to have nothing to do with farmers or farming; it was the man’s name, John Farmer, Jr., to be exact.
Turns out that he is the Dean of the Rutgers School of Law and a former Attorney General for the State of New Jersey — in fact, for 90 minutes on January 8, 2002, he served as Acting Governor of New Jersey. He also served as Senior Counsel to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, commonly known as the 9/11 Commission, which was chaired by former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean. John Farmer, Jr. also wrote a book titled The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11.
He recently wrote a piece for the Star-Ledger (where his father is editorial page editor), titled Change, Sadly, is Inevitable. It is a haunting piece that ties together the geologic change that is Yellowstone with the changes human beings experience in a lifetime.
Many of us are traveling with our families this summer, and we thought the piece especially meaningful as you head off or return from such a journey. Read the whole piece but here is an excerpt:
Most of us lead several lives in the span of our years, each demarcated by what we’ve lost. There is the early life with our parents and grandparents, the life alone before marriage, the life with our spouses and, if we’re lucky, our children, the diminishing life after our loved ones have departed. Each of these lives is complete, with days full of sun and peace, sufficient for its time, lasting just long enough for us to believe it won’t end.
They shouldn’t end, you think, the days of Poppy reading the Sunday Daily News in the kitchen in his undershirt, of your sisters riding their bikes, of the magic light in your wife’s eyes, of sunlit ball fields, of the joy of your horses running after a storm and your dog chasing waves in the shore’s salt breeze. They shouldn’t end. They last just long enough to create the illusion of permanence. Just long enough to break your heart.
For they do end, swept away in a natural disaster or a terrorist attack or in more mundane ways, in car accidents or broken relationships or illnesses or the slow death of a child or the sudden demise of a spouse or in the hoped-for long twilight of a parent’s life. You can plan for catastrophe, you can map every contingency, but the history of our planet teaches that disasters will overwhelm your every effort.
Somehow this reality doesn’t defeat us. We assimilate the tragedies that cause our lives to change forever. We move on. We always have.
We create sustaining myths of lost continents and gardens of paradise, we write psalms of exile and longing. We dance ritually the powers of nature, paint God at the center of the whirlwind, raise cathedrals of stillness to the sky.
We send rockets to the moon and mars, space probes beyond even our own sun’s reach.
We aspire, and, in our effort, we send up our prayers.
You’re descending in turbulence to Newark. Amid the shaking and rattling, you see the familiar lights of the Manhattan skyline, with the unfilled darkness where the World Trade Center once stood.
You think of a child, one among many, mortally ill at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. After eight years there is, you’ve been told, no hope.
Someday the foundations of your world will be swept away utterly. What can you do?
You can do what you always do.
You can survive, diminished and saddened, but professing to the end your unrequited love for this misbegotten, miraculous world.
Somewhere in the night a child is dying. Five miles away a plane lands safely in high winds.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, recently gave a graduation speech at Princeton. He entitled his remarks We Are What We Choose.
Today’s world is highly competitive and most middle and upper class families work very hard to help their children prepare to compete. We make sure the school work gets done and provide lots of extra help if needed; we encourage the development of interests such as sports, music and art, often attending games and recitals and paying generously for lessons, equipment and trips. More than a few of us are thinking ahead to what might look good on that application to some top college or university. Not long ago, we received an invite to a charity benefit — supposedly organized by a 12-year-old who had supposedly founded the charity.
If all this is not precisely easy, it is at least clear. When we think about how we raise and ought to raise the Jr. Pundits, aka William, age 8, and Matthew, age 7, we struggle not with how to raise smart kids but with how to raise a child to be, what my grandparents would have called, a mensch. Jeff Bezos was fortunate to have a grandfather who could teach him and a situation that called for teaching, when he was only 10. Here is an excerpt from his Princeton speech:
I loved and worshipped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips. On one particular trip, I was about 10 years old. I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving. And my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips, and I hated the smell.
At that age, I’d take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I’d calculate our gas mileage — figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I’d been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can’t remember the details, but basically the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I’d come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off your life!”
I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. “Jeff, you’re so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division.” That’s not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do.
While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
Our piece, New Scientific Report Shoots Down EWG’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ List As Misleading And An Impediment To Public Health brought many nice notes including this one:
Very nice work and comments on the Alliance for Food and Farming’s campaign to set the record straight when it comes to the misleading information spread by EWG. I wanted you to know that PMA is proud to have provided additional funding to support development of the AFF’s public web site launched today at http://www.safefruitsandveggies.com and that support is transparently recognized on the site. We cannot and will not stand on the sidelines and let the steady drip-drip of misleading information from the EWG spread its corrosive toxicity across the public consciousness. Our farmers — small and large, conventional and organic alike — are committed to growing safe food for their customers and their families.
We appreciate Bryan’s letter as we appreciated PMA’s willingness to not only fund the website but to do it in a public way. Obviously PMA is not hiding behind any veil in demonstrating its strong support for this campaign by AFF.
We are at a point in the industry where many are tired of EWG spouting off nonsensically about the supposed dangers of large scale farming and accusing others of being tools of the agrichemical industry.
PMA’s members include a diverse group of growers and they are now tired of these types of anti-scientific smear tactics. Thus Bryan Silberman, the staff at PMA and the board of directors have taken this opportunity to provide this tangible support.
The industry and its associations are always willing to sit down and discuss legitimate concerns. But many of these accusations are not scientifically serious. They are done to get press and promote fundraising.
The AFF is a small group but, as we see with PMA’s investment, it is now supported by the broader produce industry because so many believe that it is high time that groups like EWG are held accountable to the same standards of scientific accuracy that are expected of the produce industry, and should be expected of all who want to better educate the public.
Many thanks to Bryan Silbermann and PMA for both supporting the efforts of AFF and for helping us to look at the situation in a new light.
The great thing about being an Ex–chairman of an organization is that you get to say things that the incumbent can’t. Such is a letter we just received from United’s Chairman in 1992:
Do you not think it’s a bit much to be wearing hair nets in a lettuce field? I guess the birds and critters have to wear diapers too.
— Alan Siger
President & CEO
Consumers Produce Co., Inc.
From Inside United Fresh:
United Fresh Members Promote Nutrition Initiatives at USDA and Congressional Salinas Valley Tours and Events
United Fresh Board member Lorri Koster, lower left, speaks with Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA), second from left, and USDA’s Dr. Janey Thornton during a tour of a lettuce operation in the Salinas Valley Tuesday.
Alan is, of course, correct. The likelihood that a stray lock of Lorri Koster’s naturally curly hair will start a national food safety outbreak is infinitesimal. If you lived life trying to play those odds, you would spend all your money buying Lotto tickets and think you were buying Blue Chip Securities.
This is just the start of it. Over the years we’ve collected a lot of photos on farms. They used to all come in showing a happy multi-generational family with a tail-wagging dog. Now the same farmers plead with us to use a new picture sans the dog — lest someone think the dog might defecate on the field. Of course, these families still have dogs.
In a sense, running around the fields in hair nets, or cutting dogs out of all farm pictures is sort of harmless industry PR, showing how conscientious we are.
Yet, maybe, we are also shooting ourselves in the foot. Those hair nets are a symbol of sophisticated food processing facilities. In wearing them in the fields we might be setting an expectation that fields, open to all the elements, can be expected to deliver the kind of sanitary conditions that a food processing plant does.
As Alan with his razor sharp wit notes, considering our inability to get hair nets and diapers on birds and critters, that sanitary promise is one we cannot keep.
Maybe making the realities of farm life clear would actually serve us better in the long run.
Many thanks to Al Siger and Consumers Produce for sending along this note.