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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

Digging Into Wal-Mart’s
‘Locally Grown’ Numbers

We’ve written a number of pieces on the locally grown phenomenon and, particularly, on the issue of food safety and locally grown. These articles have included items such as these:

Food Safety And Locally Grown

Getting Locally Grown Up To Standard

New York Times Article Reveals Double Standard On Food Safety

Pundit’s Mailbag — Wegmans Responds To ‘Double Standard’ Allegation

Wal-Mart is so big that its actions bring prominence to any movement, and so its announcement that Wal-Mart Makes National Commitment to Buy Locally Grown Produce and that Wal-Mart Commits to America’s Farmers as Produce Aisles Go Local brought many television, web and newspaper reports.

This is really nothing new… for a long time Wal-Mart has had a Store of the Community initiative and its commitment to purchase $400 million in locally grown produce only works out to about $440 a day per store when you consider the company has about 2,500 supercenters and Neighborhood Markets. We also have previously mentioned Wal-Mart’s initiative to promote “Heritage Agriculture.”

In addition, although Wal-Mart seems to typically refer to produce grown “in state” as local, Wal-Mart doesn’t ever officially define what it means by “locally grown,” so it is difficult to ascertain the significance of the effort.

For example, Wal-Mart kicked its whole summer program off with a big in-store farmers’ market at a supercenter in DeKalb County, GA. Interestingly enough, Wal-Mart elected to highlight Delbert Bland, identifying him in its press release with the explanation that he is a “Georgia onion farmer” and mentioning that “his family farm has been in operation in Glennville, Ga. since the 1940s, and he is featured on in-store signage in the Atlanta area.”

All this is completely true and yet, to us, seems to beg the question. We look at Wal-Mart’s state by state chart of locally grown produce, and we are not certain that products such as Vidalia onions, Indian River grapefruit, Washington State cherries, Idaho potatoes, Hawaiian pineapples or California kiwifruit really make a lot of sense to view as part of a locally grown initiative.

We see these as broadly shipped products and, incidentally, some of the produce gets eaten in its home state. To consider California Navel Oranges as “local produce in California,” as Wal-Mart does on its website, is technically true but surely adds more smoke than light to the subject.

It certainly makes us wonder how to judge that $400 million number that Wal-Mart has been promoting. If it includes California oranges in California, Florida grapefruit in Florida, Washington cherries in Washington, Idaho potatoes in Idaho, etc., we have to suspect that the locally grown buy, figured as non-broadly shipped product, is just a fraction of that number.

As we dug into Wal-Mart’s locally grown program, we noted that it published on its “Buy Local” website farmer profiles. We reviewed the nine local growers profiled and were pleased to find that we could quickly identify in public databases audit documentation for many of them — which we were unable to do when we looked at the farmers Wegmans’ lists on its website (although as we mentioned here Wegmans is in the process of changing that situation).

We wondered how Wal-Mart pulled off this trick as compared to Wegmans and then we realized… the local growers that Wal-Mart is highlighting are mostly very large farms!

Wegmans has a big challenge in bringing food safety to its local growers because it is buying from people such as the 3-acre Peek-A-Blueberry farm in Bath, NY, the 15-acre farm maintained by The Farmer’s Daughter in Nunda, NY, the 50-acre Fenton’s Produce in Batavia, NY .

Now Wegmans also has plenty of larger local growers as well, and both Wal-Mart and Wegmans are perfectly honest about who they are buying from, trumpeting their names on their respective web sites. But you look at the nine growers Wal-Mart highlights as its “local growers” and you wonder if these mostly large growers correspond to what consumers think they are supporting when they “buy local.”

Titan Farms GA, SC, VA Peaches 6,400 acres

Ham Farms NC Sweet Potatoes 7,000 acres

Parker Farms VA Vegetables 1,800 acres

Pedernales Valley Farms TX Tomatoes 102 acres

Antelope Hill Orchards CO Peaches 200 acres

Bland Farms GA Onions 3,500 acres

Tennessee Homegrown Tomatoes TN Tomatoes 223 acres

Van Groningen & Sons CA Watermelon 4.000 acres

Wiers Farms OH Vegetables 3,000 acres

Once again, we come down to the meaning of local. Many, like Wal-Mart, focus on geography. Whole Foods also sees this as the point and deserves real credit for publishing its definition:

Only produce that has traveled less than a day (7 or fewer hours by car or truck) from the farm to our facility can be labeled “locally grown.”

We don’t particularly like the word facility in there as it strikes us as an opportunity to stretch the definition. What if the facility is 7 hours south of the produce and then the store is three hours south of the facility? Isn’t that the same as ten hours? What if it goes from one Whole Foods facility to another and then onto a store?

But even taking it as it stands, one can drive from Massachusetts to Virginia in seven hours — would any Virginian consider Massachusetts-grown produce “local?” We doubt it.

Many studies done over the years indicate a consumer preference for produce grown in-state. Consumers seem to assume that the produce will be riper and more economical. Some may, politically, want to support their state. We’ve not seen any real research indicating consumer preference for produce from nearby states.

Today’s locally grown movement ties into sustainability and certainly has connections to geography and the idea of reducing carbon output by eliminating unnecessary transport. But we also think that many consumers who find appeal in locally grown often believe they are supporting small farmers.

Is it, however, tenable to think that three-acre farms will ever offer satisfactory evidence of world-class food safety practices? And what will we do with them if they can’t?

FDA’s Irradiation Ruling
Puts FDA On The Spot

At Wegmans, consumers can buy irradiated hamburger meat. As we discussed both here and here, we think that is great. But we are also mindful that only a minority of customers elect to do so.

Why is this?

Wegmans’ Senior Vice President
of Consumer Affairs,
Mary Ellen Burris,
promotes its virtues to consumers this way:

Think of irradiated fresh ground beef as insurance against that bad bug, E. coli O157:H7. Assuming you don’t cross contaminate the beef after you open up the package, you’re assured of a safe burger, cooked any way you like it. That’s because we’ve added the food safety benefit of the FDA and USDA-approved irradiation process. And good news: the price is only 10-cents more per pound than our small pack non-irradiated beef. Available in both 80% and 90% leanness, the beef is in a one-pound roll, easy to subdivide for burgers.

Our irradiation process uses concentrated beams of electrical energy at a level to reduce bacteria that may be in the meat. The packaged beef passes through these beams and comes out the other side as a safer product. It’s then delivered fresh to our door. As a reminder, there’s no radioactivity… not in the process, the beef, or in our stores.

Our shoppers tell us that in addition to food safety, they like this product because the airtight roll gives extra days of freshness in your refrigerator. Upon opening, the meat appears naturally darker in color, but oxygen in the air changes the meat to the normal cherry red you expect. This color has nothing to do with irradiation…it is merely a result of the protective packaging. There are “use or freeze by” dates on each roll.

We are committed to finding the safest ways to bring you the world’s best foods. If you’re not buying irradiated ground beef, be sure to grill your burgers for safety’s sake to 160 degrees… color is no indication of doneness.

Part of the problem is that the change is more than irradiated meat; you have a more limited selection of size and packaging options as well. It is also true that consumers have to pay a bit more.

Yet the biggest issue is that consumers don’t actually perceive there to be any real risk. Ms. Burris’s admonition to cook to 160 degrees reaches only a small minority of consumers and, in any case, how many people use a thermometer to cook meatballs or hamburgers?

And the vague urging to do it for “safety’s sake,” as opposed to graphically depicting the children that have died in horrible pain as a result of hemolytic urea syndrome caused by E. coli 0157:H7 in hamburger, is representative of the problem both public health authorities and the food industry find themselves in today: How can they say simultaneously that the food supply is safe but you better pay extra for irradiated food?

The recent news that the FDA has decided to allow irradiation to be used on iceberg lettuce and spinach for purpose of food safety — most irradiation on produce is allowed only in doses large enough to kill insects and extend shelf life — raises the prospect of the long-sought “kill step” that will ensure food safety.

There are some technical issues:

1) Exact dosages and tests to insure quality is maintained will take some time — though tests have been going on a long time and we think that could happen fairly quickly.

2) A more specific obstacle is that the best application for irradiation is to irradiate packaged product such as bagged salads. This is because a sealed product can’t be recontaminated along the supply chain, at least until it hits the consumer’s kitchen. The FDA, although approving the irradiation of the lettuce and spinach, has not approved irradiation of the produce packaging. Once again, we think this is an obstacle that can be quickly overcome.

3) The approval only applies to iceberg lettuce and spinach, so blends with other items are not eligible. Although reading the final rule, the science that FDA relied on would clearly apply just as well to romaine and other items used in blends.

None of these things, though, will be obstacles. In fact, although there are short term capacity constraints, this can be overcome with time, and we doubt it would even cost very much.

The reason the irradiated ground beef costs 10 cents more a pound is not that irradiation costs anywhere near that. It is that small volume irradiation in which product is trucked to an irradiation facility, unpacked, irradiated, put back on the truck, etc., adds to the cost.

In the end, if irradiation really becomes the standard food safety practice, processors such as Fresh Express, Dole, Ready Pac, etc., will build their processing plants with inline irradiation facilities in which packaged product gets irradiated. Without the extra loading, trucking, etc., the costs would be manageable.

Now we suspect — and hope — that some entrepreneur will quickly introduce a niche brand of irradiated produce. Some retailers such as Wegmans will probably at least try it in line with their general commitment to consumer choice. One suspects that those consumers with impaired immune systems, such as those with AIDS or many cancer patients, would be a ready market. There should also be a ready foodservice market at certain hospitals, retirement homes and similar facilities.

These are niche markets though, willing to pay a premium.

In the end, irradiation will not take off as long as public health authorities declare the food supply to be safe. Just look at the distinction between milk and chopped meat. Public health authorities fought hard to require pasteurization of milk. They screamed it was not safe, and the FDA requires milk to be pasteurized in its interstate jurisdiction and most states have followed the practice as well. Recently there has been the growth of a raw milk movement, as we have mentioned in pieces here and here. Still, however, almost all milk is pasteurized.

Despite the food safety risks of ground beef, the public health authorities have made barely a sound. They may attack individual companies during an outbreak, but when the outbreak is over we are back to being told that we have the safest food supply in the world. As a result, barely any ground beef is irradiated.

We are pleased with the new FDA ruling because it really puts the FDA on the spot. It has continued to stick to its ridiculous “zero tolerance” policy for pathogens. Now we will learn whether the FDA is serious or this is just PR.

If FDA is actually serious… that it is the public policy of the United States of America that it is not acceptable any person should ever again fall ill as a result of a pathogen on spinach and iceberg lettuce… then, clearly, it has to mandate irradiation as it does pasteurization. If the FDA elects not to act, then we know it was just kidding all along.

Setting The Record Straight
On AP’s Mexican Pepper Story

A widely distributed AP story entitled, Mexican Peppers Posed Problem Long Before Outbreak, claimed that the FDA Knew peppers from Mexico were a big problem long before the recent Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak:

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Federal inspectors at U.S. border crossings repeatedly turned back filthy, disease-ridden shipments of peppers from Mexico in the months before a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,400 people was finally traced to Mexican chilies.

Yet no larger action was taken. Food and Drug Administration officials insisted as recently as last week that they were surprised by the outbreak because Mexican peppers had not been spotted as a problem before.

But an Associated Press analysis of FDA records found that peppers and chilies were consistently the top Mexican crop rejected by border inspectors for the last year.

Since January alone, 88 shipments of fresh and dried chilies were turned away. Ten percent were contaminated with salmonella. In the last year, 8 percent of the 158 intercepted shipments of fresh and dried chilies had salmonella….

We immediately became suspicious upon reading this article. Although the Pundit has been interviewed by several AP reporters over the years and usually finds them to have tough standards — in fact being unwilling to run with stories without solid evidence — this piece seemed incomplete and sloppy.

All the logical questions weren’t raised or answered:

  1. Referring to “Mexican chilis” evades the crucial question: Dried, canned or fresh?
  2. Were these tested shipments a result of random sampling or were these shipments selected for enhanced scrutiny because they came from suspect producers?
  3. Were the numbers goosed by intense inspection after the FDA became concerned about Mexican produce, in general, and chili peppers, in particular?

An exploration of FDA’s OASIS Records points to a few obvious issues:

  1. AP included dried peppers and fresh peppers, even though dried peppers were never implicated in this outbreak. And most of the rejections of filthy product are for dried, not fresh, jalapenos.
  2. A good chunk if not the majority of the positive salmonella findings in peppers were in JULY — after FDA stepped up inspection and testing of chili peppers.
  3. A good chunk of the fresh Mexican chili peppers rejected also took place in July.
  4. The story says peppers were the most rejected item, even though FDA never told the reporters (and it says this in the story) what percentage the rejected items make up of all chili peppers inspected.

We’ve not been afraid to critique the FDA when it was in the wrong, but this all seemed pretty suspicious, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Sebastian Cianci
FDA spokesperson

Q: The AP article, Mexican Peppers Posed Problems Long Before Outbreak, appears to unfairly disparage the FDA. There is data in the AP article that doesn’t make sense. Could you clarify and correct any confusion or misinformation? We would like to set the record straight.

For example, AP reports that since January, 88 shipments of fresh and dried chilies were turned away, and ten percent were contaminated with Salmonella. How much was fresh? Were these shipments targeted based on known problems beforehand? Ten percent of random samples would certainly be extraordinary, since fresh peppers are not known as a problem for Salmonella. Do these numbers correspond to increased testing due to the outbreak?

A: The number of shipments that were reported by AP, 88, appears to be the number of lines of Mexican pepper products refused in 2008, according to our refusal report. As of the date of the article, the refusal reports covered January through July 2008. It covered all types of pepper products including dried and canned in addition to fresh.

Q: What constitutes a line?

A: We talk about lines of shipments. I can give you the line breakout — A line is an import entry. Suppose you have a shipment of bananas, that’s a line. A shipment of bananas and oranges will be two lines. If avocados are included, that’s three lines. A line might be five crates or half a shipment of something.

Q: So could you detail the 88 lines that AP is referencing?

A: 29 lines were detained as a result of filth or sanitation issues. 20 lines were refused based on Low Acid Canned Food Registration (LACFR) or process issues. 26 lines were refused based on pesticide residue violations. 3 lines were refused based on Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) violations.

10 lines were refused based on the presence of Salmonella. Of the 10 Salmonella refusals, 3 of those were dried peppers, and 7 were fresh peppers. FDA actually sampled eight of these 10 shipments. The other two were detained without physical examination because the firms were already on import alert 99-19, which covers processed pepper products. We see them coming in and reject them.

Of these 8 that we did sample, one was dried pepper and subsequently added to import alert 99-19. Seven were fresh peppers coming from six different firms. Three of those firms were placed on import alert 99-23. The names of these three farms were: Zargoza, Consuelo, and Fernando Ruy Sanchez. The other three did not meet the DWPE [Detention Without Physical Examination] criteria.

Q: What is that criteria?

A: The product still gets rejected but the firm doesn’t get placed on DWPE since only one sample came up positive for salmonella. When you have raw agricultural product, there is always something difficult to control that could have contaminated it. The example we give is a bird dropping, which is an isolated incident. If two samples come up positive it will land on DWPE.

Q: When were these positives on fresh peppers discovered? Was this during the period that FDA ramped up testing of fresh peppers as part of the expanding outbreak investigation?

A: There is always baseline sampling FDA does. When the outbreak was first discovered in the beginning of June, we started increasing sampling, including on tomatoes. In July, when it seemed the cause of the outbreak was something more than tomatoes, we augmented the increased testing for jalapenos, serranos, cilantro and basil.

The seven fresh pepper shipments refused for Salmonella occurred this summer — all those samples were collected at the time of increased testing in response to the Salmonellosis outbreak related to the Salmonella Saintpaul pathogen. We were looking for Salmonella Saintpaul in the testing we did this summer. In the process we saw other Salmonella strains.

If you look at the import alert 99-23 in July/August for basil, cilantro, jalapenos and serranos, we were trying to target Saintpaul, but we found other Salmonella strains too so companies got put on import alert.

Q: For perspective, how many shipments came in and what percent were tested? What was the rate of testing compared to your baseline sampling?

A: We don’t know how many lines came through during that time frame. The key thing is that the seven fresh pepper salmonellas came from our targeted samples. During our focused testing we did find other types of salmonella, and we also found positives in domestic product as well.

We don’t know what AP is referencing when it says 158 intercepted shipments in the last year so we can’t respond to that.

Basically the AP reporter seems to have not understood the data or the complexity of the industry and leapt to an unsupportable conclusion. The Associated Press should investigate how such a poorly reported story ever got through its fact-checking process.

On this one the FDA is in the clear… there was no “smoking gun” of pre-outbreak data that should have made FDA suspicious of fresh jalapenos and Serrano peppers from Mexico.

PMA 2nd Annual Impact Award
Honors Excellence In Packaging

It’s time for entries to be sent in for the second annual PMA Impact Award presented for Excellence in Produce Packaging.

Since the Pundit was honored to be named to the panel of judges, we have a special interest in encouraging everyone to get their entries in on time.

With packaging at the crossroads of traceability, convenience, sustainability and marketing, the industry will not advance without more advanced packaging. In fact, we thought the subject so crucial that Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, devoted more than a half dozen editorial pages to analyzing the award-winning entries last year.

The list of last year’s nominees is impressive and the winners had some exceptional things to show:

BEST IN FOOD SAFETYPerfection Fresh, Sydney, Australia

BEST IN MARKETINGMonterey Mushrooms, Inc, Watsonville, California

BEST IN FUNCTIONALITY/TECHNOLOGYMann Packing Co., Inc. Salinas, California


BEST IN MERCHANDISING/TRANSPORTATIONStemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington

BEST IN SUSTAINABILITYEarthcycle Packaging Ltd., and the Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver BC, Canada

Now this year the program is expanded:

Join us recognizing the bold thinkers and innovative designers who are setting new standards in produce and floral packaging!

In today’s intensely competitive produce and floral marketplace, innovative packaging is more critical than ever in attracting customer attention, driving sales and building long-term product demand.

That’s why PMA is looking for companies like yours that are breaking new ground in this vital area with a wealth of new concepts, exciting designs, and creative applications that will benefit our industry now and for years to come.

Recognizing the important role your colleagues play in our industry’s future, we encourage you to nominate a company for the PMA Impact Award: Excellence in Packaging. Now in its second year, this special recognition honors excellence in product packaging and recognizes outstanding achievements in six categories.

To nominate a company for the PMA Impact Award: Excellence in Packaging, please visit www.pma.com/packagingaward. Online nominations will be accepted through September 1. Winners in each category will be announced October 25, 2008, during the Breakfast General Session at PMA’s Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition in Orlando, Florida. We look forward to receiving your nomination.


Ronald G. McCormick
PMA Packaging Council
Vice President/Divisional Manager
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Dan’l Mackey-Almy
Vice Chairman
PMA Packaging Council
President and Managing Partner
DMA Solutions, Inc.

The industry owes both Ron and Dan’l a great vote of thanks. An undertaking such as this doesn’t just happen, and making it such a success last year required both inspiration and hard work. To take it on again in year two is really above and beyond.

Being a winner is certainly great publicity. The announcement of the winners is made at a General Session during the PMA convention in Orlando, and there is a special display of the winners’ packaging at the expo hall. The media attention is likely to be substantial.

If you didn’t enter last year, this is your opportunity and, if you did, we hope you will try again.

You can enter on line right here.

Pundit’s Mailbag — Labor Shortages And Globalization Will Soon Lead To Mechanical Harvesting

A piece we wrote analyzing the application of an article in The New York Times that focused on labor shortages to the fresh produce industry led one eminent professor to send along some intriguing comments.

I found very interesting your article, Future Labor Shortage Poses Problems for Industry.

I agree that skilled labor is in shortage. But there is a “double pincers” of labor shortage and competition from globalization closing on industry from two directions. On the one hand, skilled labor is in shortage and even unskilled labor can be in shortage due to migration limitations. Both of these drive labor costs up (beyond labor cost inflation contributed to by rising health care costs and fuel costs for their transport).

On the other hand, the industry is under a cost squeeze in general due to global competition with globalization. While I am not making a recommendation, I note that historically, industries that face rising costs of a given factor, like labor, substitute away from that factor and into another; generally this is from labor into machines. This substitution is usually accelerated when the industry is under survival pressure from increased cost (and quality) competition.

I have noted in another comment to you that now emerging market countries in Latin America, Asia and South America can produce at lower cost with equivalent quality to produce grown in the US and Western Europe. The upshot of all this is that my guess is that the labor shortage will translate into mechanization. The latter will be, I believe, at a far higher level than previously, a great leap forward, driven by the double pincers noted above.

Precision farming will spill into horticulture. Mechanized harvesting will leap forward. Mechanization of post-harvest processes will jump ahead. I think that many produce farms, warehouses, irrigation systems, sprayers, vehicles and accounting offices in farm areas will be … robots… within 20 years. The burst of innovation recently in farm and farm-related robotics (and other mechanization… as the line between robotics and smart “regular” machines is a fuzzy line) seems similar to me to what happened in the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

There was an accumulation of new machines (for textile mills and steam engines)… on the shelf… for some 60 years before the industrial revolution! Then “suddenly”, farmers (the extreme majority in Britain at that time) had a mini agricultural boom and there was a “tipping point” where they went from being able to buy 1 shirt a year to buying 2 shirts a year! That suddenly doubled demand, putting big pressure on the textile industry, and the latter ran desperately to the scientists and asked them to pull their inventions off the shelf and get them working.

That caused probably the greatest leap forward for human material life since the same sort of thing happened and turned up a new technology called “agriculture” ten thousand years ago. I think that the “double pincers” of labor shortage and globalization will drive farmers (and other produce industry actors) to turn to robotics (and semi-roboticized mechanization) to a far greater extent and range of uses than a mere 10 years ago. This will probably cause those who can afford to buy and have the skilled labor (which will include different skills than what you meant by “skills”; a software expert for example might be the primary category of employee of the future).

Here is a New Zealand example. I was in New Zealand for a few weeks in March and visited various sites. One of them was a large kiwi farm and another was Massey University. The kiwi farmer noted that it was becoming increasingly difficult to source migrant labor or keep it on farm once there, due to alternatives for the migrants. I asked, on a whim, “will you instead mainly use robots in 20 years?” He smiled and said, oh, much sooner that that! He said they already had robots working in their packing sheds. I then went to Massey and saw a prototype of a kiwi harvesting robot, like a go-cart with 4 wheels, GPS to navigate (markers are placed on the poles supporting the canopy), electric eyes to look up at fruit canopy and pick ready fruit by size and shape, works 20 hours a day, picks fruit with 4 extendible arms and then puts the fruit delicately in a chute which then loads a pulled wagon. The robot fills the wagon, drives it back to the warehouse. (I imagine that projecting from the farmer’s remark, a robot might even be there to receive it and unload it.) Then the harvesting robot goes back to orchard navigating by GPS.

The “hands” of the robot are designed for delicacy and chute distance is less of a drop than human pickers did. It does not shake the plant. It leaves the unripe unready fruit for a later pass.

They have also developed one for apple harvesting. They will market these robots. Just like every big shift we have observed in the produce industry (and various other industries), there will be the usual sequence of events once a cluster of these sorts of “robot unveilings” accumulate.

A set of countries and states and companies, as well as labor suppliers, will rush at them, make investments and inventions, corner top skilled labor for this innovation from anywhere in the world, gain advantage, and increase their competitive advantage.

A second group of countries, states, and companies will hold back and assume somehow that “time will tell”.

A third group will resist this technological change born from globalization plus factor price change.

The resistance or avoidance of it will probably only be effective in developing countries where cheap labor can be an effective substitute for robots. Competition will then, as in the computer industry, bring down prices of the factor, and robots will be made even cheaper. Thus, globalization and a series of events that together suddenly push up labor costs will push a great wheel rolling and rolling that will seem to suddenly change the technology of the produce industry, in a decade or two at most.


Thomas Reardon
Dept. of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics
Michigan State University
Co-Director IFPRI/MSU Joint Program “Markets in Asia”


We deeply appreciate Professor Reardon’s thoughtful remarks. That he spends so much of his time amidst the teeming masses of India and yet can still perceive labor shortages is much to his credit — although actually we hear frequently that western-style retailers in India find appropriate help in short supply.

Actually we have dealt many times with issues of mechanization in agriculture. One of the earliest pieces we ran on the immigration issue included a letter from a key buyer:

On immigration, much to the dismay of my shippers, I’ve long contended that the agricultural community is hooked on the drug of cheap labor. In the 60’s, people were mechanically harvesting certain vegetables for Campbell’s Soup. They had to quit doing it because labor was so cheap — they couldn’t beat the cheap labor rates — and the machine wasn’t efficient enough to overcome it. The point is, it was being contemplated 40 years ago, and it should have been an industry-wide effort ever since.

We haven’t worked on mechanization and automation in this industry because we have had no motivation to do so. Now, with fear of labor shortages, we see a frenetic pace of R&D on mechanical harvesters. I’m already hearing tales of at least four companies that will be mechanically harvesting lettuce in Yuma with less than 50% of the labor previously needed, and they also claim better quality! And this is only the start of an industry revolution.

We have also run pieces such as, Reducing Labor With Technology, and in a piece entitled, Compromise Immigration Bill Gets Another Chance, we highlighted a program researching mechanized harvesting technology being funded by the California Citrus Research Board and Washington Tree Fruit Commission. The piece included a review of some of the work done by Vision Robotics and included graphics depicting how mechanical harvesting equipment might look:


Apple Picking
Our vision systems are first used to scan and identify apples within an orchard. Cameras placed at the end of long scanning booms use arrays of stereoscopic cameras to create a virtual 3D image of the entire apple tree. The positions and sizes of the apples are stored and passed onto the harvesting arms. Immediately following the scanning process, a series of long reticulating arms are maneuvered to gracefully pick each apple quickly, efficiently, and economically.

Orange Harvesting
Our vision systems are first used to scan and identify oranges within a grove. Scanning heads placed at the end of multi-axis arms use arrays of stereoscopic cameras to create a virtual 3D image of the entire orange tree. The positions and sizes of the oranges are stored and passed onto the harvesting arms. Immediately following the scanning process, eight long reticulating arms are maneuvered to gracefully pick each orange quickly, efficiently, and economically.


Grape Pruning
At the end of each season, workers must go out into a vineyard and meticulously trim every single vine at a precise angle and location in order to prepare the vines to grow the best grapes the following year.

Yet all this speaks to our technical proficiency, and Professor. Reardon’s letter is really serving to remind us all of simple principles of economics. First, what is feasible depends crucially on the price of alternatives and, second, research and development as well as capital investment flows to where profit opportunities exist.

Whether Professor Reardon is correct that the industry will mechanize quickly depends crucially on two things: What happens to immigration and international trade. That US growers would mechanize quickly if immigrant labor was eliminated and foreign produce could not be imported is clear. Why? It goes back to the two principles of economics Professor Reardon reminds us of. First, if there was no foreign labor, US growers would have to pay more — probably much more to entice a domestic labor force into the fields. Second, if there was no competitive imported produce — assuming consumers still want the product at a higher price — growers could pay higher wages profitably. This would create a demand for robots and the high wages would both incentivise developers of such systems and encourage investment to reduce manpower costs.

Of course these are two big ifs. During the immigration bill debate, we argued that the industry’s best shot for getting a guest worker program would be to ask for a temporary program with a phase-out. In effect making a promise to the American people to gradually mechanize.

Most growers, though, fear to make such a commitment because they fear that labor-rich countries will be able to undercut pricing and export product to the US.

It is hard to know how it will all work out, but of this we are certain: The answer is as likely to be determined by politics as by economics.

Many thanks to Professor Reardon for his thought-provoking remarks.

Perishable Thoughts

David A. Linder, Director of Merchandising for the Military Produce Group in Norfolk, Virginia, had sent along a great Cicero quote on agriculture, which we used in the Perishable Thoughts section here.

Simultaneously he had sent along a second quote, one he identified as coming from a noted poet:

“Nature does not accomplish things. She is chaotic. Man must finish, and he does so by making a garden.”
— Robert Frost

We have been working on it for some time, yet our fact-checking process could find no such quote. This led Pundit Aide-de-Camp James Elmer to both the Internet and the library stacks for some extensive research.

The quote turns up all over the Internet but without the specific citation we require, so we began our search for a source. We first turned to noted Robert Frost organizations but found little help. First James tried the Frost Foundation:

What I tell my students to do in a case like this is to add the quotation to wikisource. Please see en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Robert_Frost

Failing that, you could work with the research librarian at your local library or hire a professional researcher.

— Mark Schorr.
Frost Foundation

Then came this note from the editor of The Robert Frost Review:

Thanks for the question. I will put out a query to my sources but already I have to say that it is not something familiar enough to yield a quick response. Once I have one, however, I will be back in touch.

— Jonathan Barron
Associate Professor of English
Editor, The Robert Frost Review

Frost Friends calls itself “a national organization to honor America’s favorite poet,” but had nothing to say:

Sorry, can’t help. There is no index on these things.
Frost Friends

The chair of the Robert Frost Poetry Festival 2009 tried to help:

I have forwarded your email off to our Robert Frost Scholar in England to see if he can identify your quote. As soon as I hear back from him, I will email you.

Hope we can figure it out.

— Roberta DePiero
Chair, Robert Frost Poetry Festival 2009

The English Robert Frost Scholar was as much at a loss as we Americans:

I’ve hunted around but so far haven’t found the source for Frost’s comment. I don’t think it figures in any of the poems, so it may be somewhere in one of his pieces on writing poetry (or a quote that he himself never wrote down). I’ll keep looking — sorry I can’t be more help at this stage.

— Michael Wyndham Thomas
Robert Frost Scholar
2008 Robert Frost Poetry Festival

Having failed to turn anything on the Internet and finding local bookstores and his community library unavailing, James, who had just moved to Pittsburgh, turned to the world famous Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and, right across the street the University of Pittsburgh Library.

With the help of one of Carnegie’s ace research librarians, a woman named Leigh Anne Vrabel, James cracked the puzzle:

Turns out, it is not a Robert Frost quote. It was originally a paraphrase written by Gorham Munson of a larger quote by Robert Frost. Munson was an American literary critic and author of a few books on Robert Frost.

What Robert Frost actually wrote was this:

“I believe in what the Greeks call synecdoche: the philosophy of the part for the whole; touching the hem of the goddess. All that an artist needs is samples. Enough success to know what money is like; enough love to know what women are like.”

Gorham Munson, a prolific literary critic and the founder of a literary review known as Secession, paraphrased Frost to explain the meaning of the Frost quote to his readers:

Nature, he explains, does not complete things. She is chaotic. Man must finish and he does so by making a garden and building a wall.

— Gorham Munson
Robert Frost — A Study in Sensibility and Good Sense”
1927, George H. Doran & Co.
1968, Reissued, Kennikat Press, Inc. / Port Washington, NY

It is a slightly edited and rephrased version of Munson’s statement that one can find all over the Internet — as well as on David A. Linder’s desk — as a quote attributed to Robert Frost.

How did this happen? Here is how James assesses the matter:

I believe what happened is Frost’s original words were confusingly quoted in Caroline Ford’s 1935 book, “The Road Less Traveled” as she lumped together Munson’s paraphrase along with a snippet of the larger Frost quote about Greek philosophy and artists, and a casual reader might have attributed the whole thing to Frost.

In fact, despite the fact that there is a footnote to the work by Munson, it did become attributed to Frost. Somehow, over the course of 75 years or so, someone somewhere copied the quote, probably from Ford’s book, and attributed it to Robert Frost… the rest is Internet history.

So the mystery is unraveled. James gets the super-sleuth award of the month and we are left with three things: A lesson as to the need for skepticism; A reminder of the importance of discipline and hard work in achieving things such as the unraveling of this little mystery; and an achingly beautiful quote inspired by Robert Frost and expressed by Gorham Munson that speaks to the human role of perfecting nature.

That notion seems relevant as we consider issues such as irradiation or GMOs. If we view mankind as somehow outside of nature, then these things may be seen as “unnatural” intrusions. If mankind is part of nature, then things such as irradiation and GMOs are part of man’s search for ways to perfect nature.

Frost was speaking metaphorically of beauty and art and seeing in great poetry the building of this most perfect garden. We who tend to the fruit of the earth also have an opportunity to participate in the perfection of nature along with the artist. In this sense, we come to see food safety and the embrace of science generally as an embrace of the human purpose. It is at once humbling and ennobling to realize our prudential concerns are imbued with a meaning we often forget.

Many thanks to David A. Linder, Director of Merchandising, Military Produce Group, Norfolk, Virginia, for reminding us.


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