Tim York, Markon Cooperative
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

On several occasions, including in one of his “state of the industry” talks, I recall the Produce Marketing Association’s CEO Bryan Silbermann exhorting the industry to “tell our story.”

It seems so simple, and, frankly, we’ve heard it all too often.

Yet, as an industry, we are still not doing a very good job of showing and telling consumers about the healthy products we grow, ship and sell, nor about the people behind them.

When I was PMA’s chairman-elect in 2001, I visited Bryan’s homeland, South Africa, as part of the International Council.

Supermarkets there featured pictures of growers, their names and farm locations and histories, demonstrating the relevancy of the stories behind the food.

This was 2001, but this practice has only recently been adopted by some retailers in North America.

In foodservice, the process of bringing farms and farmers to the table is moving equally slowly. But it’s picking up steam and the time is ripe for the produce industry to bring its stories to the masses.

Food culture brings new ways to tell produce storiesConsumers — and in turn retailers and foodservice operators — have never been more interested in where their food comes from, specifically, how it is grown and by whom.

Tech savvy millennials define themselves as “foodies” and are increasingly concerned about the food they eat, according to the 2014 Food Foresight trends report.

This heightened interest in food has led to a sweeping food culture. From the increasing popularity of food and cooking shows to the prevalence and power of food stories in social media, it’s clear there is an audience hungry for our stories.

For better or worse, storytellers living beyond the farm are often the ones telling the tales in a multitude of ways more or less connected to reality.

A quick Google search for “Gill’s Onions video” yields more than 350,000 results.

In addition to company-created videos, results include: a video from the TV show “How it’s Made;” a segment from Huell Howser’s “California Green” about energy produced with onion waste; and a “Dirty Jobs” segment featuring Mike Rowe slicing and dicing onions.

These videos offer a tear-free way to understand growing, harvest, preparation and packing of onions, along with elements of the people behind the process and sustainability.

Social connections

Some of our industry leaders are making strides by tapping into social media, including influential bloggers.

Recently, Naturipe Farms hosted a Twitter party with blogger Meghan Cooper from JaMonkey.

In March, Well-Pict Berries, in partnership with To-Jo Mushrooms, promoted Produce for Kids with mealplanningmagic.com and blogger Busy Working Mama.

Duda Farms and Crunch Pak held a blogger party to showcase products and build awareness of their fresh produce items. These efforts are certainly steps in the right direction, but how can we, as an industry, improve communication and resonance of our stories?

At Markon, we host field tours and I remember a comment from one of our visitors that stayed with me.

“The freshest lettuce I ever ate was in a Salinas lettuce field,” the visitor said during the Salinas Valley tour.

Walking into a lettuce field, observing the precision of the planting and growing process, the hard-working laborers carefully packing product, and the pride of the harvest crew foreman in that entire venture — then listening to the sound of a crisp head of iceberg being cracked open, and enjoying the surprisingly sweet taste of fresh lettuce — is an experience that can’t easily be replicated. But we can and should try.

At Markon, we regularly shoot videos in the field, with our inspectors explaining and showing how a product is grown and packed, or simply updating stakeholders on field conditions.

For customers and consumers who can’t get to the fields to experience growing or packing firsthand, such stories provide a taste of what occurs. How do you show and tell your story, and engage your audience?

Growers looking to share their food stories should think about what is of most interest to their audiences. For foodservice buyers or operators, it may be growing conditions that impact availability, quality or price. For consumers, it may be parts of the growing process that are unique or unexpected.

Then, it’s about exploring the bevy of tools available to bring that story to life to any audience. What worked in the past may not work in the future.

We need to break free of the traditional tools of communication. It may require a new kind of transparency and openness to give nearly unfettered access to consumers, retailers and foodservice operators.

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif., Markon Cooperative, made up of eight North American foodservice distributors. Centerplate is a monthly column offering a peek at “what’s now and next” for foodservice and the implications for the produce industry.


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