Her research on the California fresh produce industry has earned agricultural economist Roberta Cook a reputation for crossing the boundaries between business and government, farm and university, the U.S. and Mexico.
At the University of California, Davis, Cook is a cooperative extension marketing economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, a role she’s held since 1985. She also serves on the boards of Ocean Mist Farms and Naturipe Farms, as she did before at Sunkist Growers and for California’s kiwifruit and tomato commissions.
Cook’s research publications analyze diverse topics from the changing competitive landscape in U.S. produce sales to international market conditions, food safety, labor, the greenhouse industry and multiple commodities.
But grower-shippers also value her personal presence as a seminar leader or guest speaker.
For eight years, Cook directed the California Agribusiness Executive Seminar, still held every other year in Monterey, Calif. The invitation-only event remains a draw for industry peers.
Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer at Ocean Mist, has attended three.
“She’s connected enough to produce case studies of real-life companies,” Pezzini said. “What makes those unique is that you actually get to talk to the CEO of that company and ask them about the case. You had Bruce Taylor there, answering questions about Taylor Farms. Her intent is to get candid feedback from those brave enough to do a case study.”
“For Taylor Farms, I looked at the fact they were diversifying into retail, and whether you can pursue a branded strategy in retail versus private label,” Cook said. “We don’t hold these seminars to impart information or listen to speakers; it’s to help executives think strategically.”
Seminar regular Karen Caplan, president of Frieda’s Inc., once invited Cook to meet with Federal Reserve Bank officials at the bank’s Los Angeles branch.
“She gave a fantastic presentation about the challenges on water, politics and labor law,” Caplan said. “She provides a nice balance on the reality of doing business in the produce industry, especially for a grower-based organization that’s oriented more to soil and growing conditions and not so much to marketing.”
Cook, 57, has spoken to trade association and produce meetings in Chile, Mexico, Guatemala, Italy and Spain.
“Her incredible presentations … are like a work of art connected to a fire hose, which kind of floods the audience with tremendous insight,” said Gary Lucier, an agricultural economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lucier keeps several of Cook’s writings handy for quick reference and said others in government and industry do the same.
A 2005 report, “Greenhouse Tomatoes Change the Dynamics of the North American Fresh Tomato Industry,” coauthored by Cook with USDA agricultural economist Linda Calvin, still prompts queries from growers, retailers, scientists and academics, Calvin said.
The report explained increased greenhouse production in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, providing an authoritative assessment to the field tomato industry. Cook’s Spanish-language skill and contacts in Mexico helped pull it off.
“In government, we always call Roberta for a better understanding of what we’re involved in,” Calvin said.
“She has a worldwide impact on assessment of produce issues,” she said.
Frieda’s Karen Caplan said Cook helped ease U.S. growers into increased operations in Mexico.
“She was a great resource on how to go about setting up relationships there,” Caplan said.
Cook’s next paper, “Fundamental Forces Affecting Fresh Produce Growers and Marketers,” has been submitted for publication. It addresses buyer-supplier relationships and bargaining power; marketing services; product differentiation; and berry and lettuce commodities, among other topics.