Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association

Last month the United Fresh Produce Association staff and I set out to visit members and host town halls across the country.

We hosted 21 town halls, visited more than 50 members’ facilities, traveled to 15 states, drove some 5,000 miles and flew more than 30,000 miles.

With the Congressional summer recess, August is becoming my favorite month of the year as we travel the country to learn first-hand what’s most important to produce grower-shippers, fresh-cut processors, wholesaler-distributors, and our retail and foodservice customers.

Thanks to all the industry members who hosted town halls and visits! Here’s what we heard from you.

The growing labor crisis

“Who will pick and pack the produce?”

That’s the universal question worrying industry members across the country. We heard it from apple growers in New York concerned about this year’s harvest, Midwest growers desperate for a new ag guest worker program to replace today’s controversial H-2A program, and California shippers facing a shrinking workforce while a vegetable grower in Maine has resorted to recruiting seasonal workers from California, offering free round-trip airfare and lodging.

More than 200 folks packed an immigration rally in Indiana, and our California town halls in Salinas and Visalia saw an energized industry ready to march on Washington at this year’s Washington Public Policy Conference demanding that Congress pass immigration reform.

Labor was also on the minds of processors and wholesalers, and it was rewarding to see that retailers and foodservice friends recognized the importance of this issue to assuring a future produce supply.

Food safety confusion

“We put food safety first in our business, but all the different audits are overwhelming and the proposed FDA rules don’t seem to make sense for my operation.”

From one end of the country to the other, from grower to retailer, food safety is on everyone’s mind.

Despite huge progress on the harmonized GAP audit, I’m frustrated to say that the problem of multiple audits with minor insignificant differences is still plaguing members.

A shipper in Colorado showed us one audit that requires certain data listed top to bottom and another that requires the same data, but listed from bottom to top.

Of course everyone is concerned, and often confused, about how the new FDA rules will apply to them.

With such different growing practices for different commodities, why do the rules feel like one size fits all? Why are simple produce warehouses treated exactly like food manufacturing facilities?

Why are some small farms and businesses exempt, when pathogens don’t know what size farm they’re living on?

We have a lot of work ahead to help FDA get these rules right and manage our own industry’s insane use of competing audits.

The fresh opportunity

Why are so many people optimistic, with all the challenges we face?

The recurring theme we heard is people are confident in consumers choosing more fresh produce.

Distributors reported radically increased sales to schools, while retailers expressed excitement about their growing produce departments.

Some of that growth is among traditional commodities, but retailers report that consumers are choosing more fresh foods in general, and welcome new products that combine fruits and vegetables with protein and other ingredients.

Look for the deli and other perimeter departments to grow, with fresh produce as the mainstream.

The cross-merchandising of fresh foods makes me even more excited about our 2014 convention partnership in Chicago with the Food Marketing Institute’s Retail Connect show.

It’s still about relationships

When I asked our staff about their experiences on these visits, I heard more stories about people than I did about issues.

We saw members connecting with each other at town halls, forging relationships that will create new business opportunities.

We discovered buyers and sellers who truly partner to grow each other’s businesses.

And we saw so many next generation leaders in almost every city, fulfilling the vision of industry leadership today that their parents and grandparents provided years ago.

My personal travels ended the last week of August at the Idaho Grower-Shippers Association annual convention, which was the first industry event I attended after joining United 20 years ago.

Relationships do indeed matter, as my daughter asked me if I was friends with all 300 people at the convention. It did seem that way, as I introduced her to so many people I have worked with over the years.

But, just like in 1993, I met new friends this year, and that’s why it’s so important for our staff to get out on the road.

We make connections with real people with real passion for real businesses.

And that’s the key to uniting our industry in common purpose to tackle the challenges we face.

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

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