(Sept. 29, MANAGING EDITOR’S COLUMN)

Fall is here, one of the produce industry’s busiest and most important times of year.

With the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit convention and exposition drawing near, countless companies are preparing to roll out new products.

We at The Packer have had a new product rollout of our own, of sorts, recently. Namely, me.

Allow me to explain.

Since July, I have been managing editor of The Packer.

Although I am new to the managing editor post, I’ve actually been working at The Packer for more than a dozen years.

So maybe I’m really more of a rebranding effort than a new product.

Anyway, while I’m a veteran staffer in the paper’s newsroom, most of my contributions have been off the radar screen of the industry.

For my whole tenure here until July, I’ve served on the copy desk, basically our page-layout, headline-writing and fact-checking staff.

For the past nine years, I was in charge of that four-person desk.

All articles and photos that appear in the paper (and many on our Web site) go through the copy desk before reaching our readers.

So although few of you have met me, I feel like I know many of you, having read thousands of articles and seen an equally large number of pictures of the small and large players from across the fruit and vegetable trade for more than a decade.

I’ve had opportunities to get out of the office and interact with produce industry members about once each year during my stint here.

My first convention was the United Fresh Produce Association’s (then known as the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association) expo in 1997 in Orlando, Fla.

I’ll be returning to Orlando on Oct. 24-27 for PMA’s Fresh Summit.

Please stop by The Packer’s booth and say hi.

Gulf Coast tour

I recently returned from a weeklong trip where I attended the Texas Produce Convention in McAllen Sept. 18-20 and the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association convention in Naples Sept. 21-23.

Given the recent hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico, the timing turned out to be ideal.

The Texas convention had been scheduled for about a month earlier on South Padre Island. Hurricane Dolly had other ideas, however, and the Texas event changed its dates and locations.

Turnout for the event at McAllen’s gorgeous new convention center wasn’t huge, and Texas Produce Association president John McClung expressed regret for the necessary rescheduling and venue change.

While the turnout may not have been big, the hospitality certainly was.

South Texans have to be among the most friendly and cordial folks in the industry.

I also learned that golf isn’t the only recreational passion enjoyed across the produce business. I found out that many in the industry share my love for saltwater fishing.

It’s nice to know that people who make their living working hand in hand with nature appreciate the leisure opportunities it offers as well.

Over on the eastside of the gulf, I really have to commend FFVA president Mike Stuart and his staff for their hard work in staging a well-executed and well-attended convention.

The beachfront venue at Naples’ Ritz Carlton Hotel was — there’s no other way to put it — ritzy.

It was tough returning home and no longer having orchids and gourmet chocolates waiting for me on my pillow each evening when I go to bed. I’ll need to speak to my wife about that.

Sushi with Howard

FFVA keynote speaker — veteran political reporter and commentator Howard Fineman, who writes for Newsweek magazine and MSNBC.com as well as appearing on TV news shows such as “Hardball” — gave attendee’s at FFVA’s traditional Cracker Breakfast some insightful analysis of the upcoming election and the credit-market mess.

By happenstance, I got to receive a sneak preview of his presentation when I ran into Fineman at a sushi bar across the street from the hotel the evening before his breakfast presentation.

He and I spoke for an hour or so at the bar as I enjoyed hot sake and tempura rolls. The man’s knowledge of and passion for politics is impressive.

Fineman predicts that whatever form the financial bailout ultimately takes, it will dominate the agenda of the next president (whoever it is) and largely tie his hands in enacting his agenda or addressing much else.

Food safety dance

Food safety workshops at the Texas and Florida conventions drew lots of attention. The FFVA workshop was standing room only.

Audience members (and tomato growers) Tony DiMare, vice president of Homestead, Fla.-based DiMare Co., and Billy Heller, chief executive officer of Palmetto, Fla.-based Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., gave impassioned and articulate defenses for the industry’s growing and food safety practices to workshop panel member David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods for the Food and Drug Administration.

Acheson seemed to be understanding of the industry’s tough position in the matter, saying that people want a solution that’s risk free, allows total freedom and gives them someone to kick when things go wrong.

In Texas, the topic of having to conduct separate third-party audits employing differing standards mandated by each buyer was identified by many as an increasing burden.

At a time when rising fuel and fertilizer costs are already hurting, such added costs are particularly rough on suppliers.

Industry gatherings make ‘newcomer’ feel welcome
Fred Wilkinson
Managing Editor