(Sept. 17) HOUSTON — As the nation dwelled on the terrorist attacks of a year ago, Texas produce industry members paused to remember, too, as they kicked off the 2002 Texas Produce Convention on the anniversary of the attacks.

At the opening reception, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs gave parallels to the farmers who took up weapons and joined militias to defend American soil against British troops and growers of today. Their planting and harvesting equipment, not weapons, puts them in the national defense business, Combs said.

"One of the things we are blessed with in this country is the ability to feed ourselves," she said. " ... We don’t ever want to become food-dependent."

Combs pledged continued promotion assistance through Texas Department of Agriculture programs.

"We market the heck out of what you do," Combs said. "We think it’s great."

Bill Hawks, undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, later addressed attendees about Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Agricultural Marketing Service issues — two programs Hawks oversees.

The AMS’ Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, formed last spring, had its second meeting Sept. 4.

"I just have to say to you that I feel really good about that committee," Hawks said. "One of the things I feel strongly about is any input from the industry. ... I subscribe to the theory that we don’t have all the answers in Washington, D.C., but you sure do out here.”

An initial administration proposal to fold APHIS under the new Department of Homeland Security was scaled back, and the House of Representatives passed a bill that would move only front-line border inspections to the new department.

"The Department of Agriculture will retain the training of inspectors; all of the trade issues that we deal with will remain," Hawks said. "I feel that’s a reasonable solution."

Growers, shippers, marketers and allied industry members took advantage of sessions that covered everything from the Houston Food Bank’s programs, how to launch a new product or brand, food security at the U.S./Mexican border and the importance of eating produce, including a speech by noted cancer researcher Bernard Levin, vice president of cancer prevention for Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Three panelists representing fruit and vegetable processors and retail talked about value-added products from their own perspective. Michael Marx, produce merchandiser for Kroger’s southwest division, used various industry studies and surveys to underscore the importance fresh-cut items will have in the next decade.

Marx used the bagged salad category to chart the potential growth of the relatively new fresh-cut fruit offerings: by 2004, fresh-cut fruit sales could hit the $1.9 billion mark, according to a Fresh Express study, nearing the 2001 sales of packaged salads at $2.15 billion.

Three keys to increasing the fresh-cut category’s growth, Marx said, are promoting the product, marketing programs and ensuring that shelves are stocked with an ever-changing but wide range of products.

"Being in the world of produce is very different than it is being in deli or grocery," Marx said. "We have an opportunity to work with growers and shippers. We have an opportunity to develop marketing programs. We have an opportunity to provide input and feedback to growers and our partners in terms of packaging, in terms of changing our merchandising."