ARLINGTON, Va. — Creating demand for fruits and vegetables, removing barriers to production and trade and attracting new talent to the fresh produce industry are three ways that the Produce Marketing Association is trying to transform agriculture.

Cathy Burns, president of Newark, Del.-based PMA, was one of four “Future of Agriculture” panelists Feb. 20 at the 2014 Agricultural Outlook Forum.

Panelists were asked to imagine what conditions would be like in five years. Citing PMA’s partnership with Sesame Street, she said the produce industry has a big opportunity to steal the playbook from packaged goods companies and market fruits and vegetables to kids age 2-5 and their millennial families.

Burns said that, on average, a child in the U.S. sees 5,500 advertisements per year for junk food but less than 100 ads for healthy food. That will change, she said.

PMA’s Burns sees opportunity for demand creation“We have an opportunity in the next five years — and we hope to make it even shorter — to be able to market to children in a way that inspires them,” she said.

Burns said transforming perceptions of fruits and vegetables can be done with marketing.

“Marketing works, and we have entered a pretty exciting partnership with the Partnership for a Healthier America, the White House, Sesame Street and PMA to provide the tools and the framework to do just that,” she said.

Burns said Sesame Workshop has given the rights to the PMA to sub-license their assets royalty free to growers and retailers.

Ultimately, young families will have a different relationship with fruits and vegetables because of the campaign, she said.

Burns said the produce industry also needs to invest in teaching consumers how to use and prepare fruits and vegetables. She predicted within five years consumers will seek closer relationships with growers.

“Whether it is knowing who a farmer is by going to a local farmers market or through a QR code and understanding who grows their product from where or by talking to a produce clerk in the supermarket, we have such a great opportunity for differentiation in the produce industry because of the relationship the consumers wants to have with the product and with the farmer,” she said.

Burns was asked what advice she would give to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who moderated the panel. She said the USDA should focus on nutritional and consumer education.

Burns said the USDA should also fund research that helps growers remove barriers to production and consumption. PMA has helped fund the Center for Produce Safety, Burns said, which offers growers across the U.S. practical ways to reduce the risk of contamination.

Panelist Paul Schickler, president of Dupont Pioneer, said there are numerous challenges to meet rising world demand for nutritious food.

“We’ve got to do this in a sustainable way.”

Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, predicted that African agriculture will be increasingly incorporated into the world economy. He also said 2.5 billion people are dependent on the evolution of climate change, and urged more large scale investment to help growers deal with climate change.

Plea for immigration reform

PMA’s Burns sees opportunity for demand creationAt a press conference following the panel, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said immigration reform “has to happen.”

Agriculture’s workforce instability is jeopardizing the ability for the U.S. to operate at its potential in agriculture.

“Farmers are thinking about moving their operations outside of the United States and there is all the other  industries impacted by not having stability (in farm labor)."

Vilsack said immigration reform will also reduce the deficit and grow the economy.

“If it doesn’t somehow happen, then people are going to make decisions based on that uncertainty and they are going to scale back their operations and that will mean less opportunity, exports and less income.”

Vilsack said he is convinced immigration reform will happen this year.