As time was running out on my final week at The Packer, an editor asked me what I had learned about produce in the 3½ years I worked here.

Probably more than I can fit in this space, but still an interesting question.

Here are few simple facts I might not have learned as a consumer if I hadn’t been working here:

  • The Honeycrisp is by far the best tasting and crunchiest apple I’ve ever had. It’s hard to believe that a group of grower-shippers will have an even better variety available in limited quantities starting next fall. I’ll be looking for the SweeTango, a cross of Honeycrisp and Zestar, next August.

  • I never paid the premium price for rainier cherries before I sampled them here. Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., will be glad to know he has my daughter hooked on the sweet, yellow cherries.

  • Sampling products at trade shows exposed me to exotic fruits I had never tried and some I had not even heard of before. The verdict? I love dragon fruit but could live without rambutan. I also learned how to cut a mango and how to pick a papaya.

More important, working in the produce industry shaped the way I look at the world. I now have a better grasp of how rising fuel costs also increase food prices and how weather events in other countries affect what we pay for food here.

Working in produce also changed my views on immigration. It’s pathetic that we’re no closer to reform than we were in 2005. Meanwhile, our government has spent billions of dollars erecting about 400 miles of a planned 700-mile fence to keep people from crossing a 2,000-mile border.

The fence, which will cut some animals off from their water source and potential mates, is one of the biggest blunders of the Bush administration.

That is sort of like saying you’ve found the hottest spot in hell.

I’ve also learned that just because something says it’s recyclable or compostable doesn’t mean it will be or can be. Some recycling centers around the country that recycle bottles aren’t set up to accept other types of containers even if they are made of recyclable material.

The produce industry, and the packaging manufacturers that work with it, need to find a way to keep clamshells and other supposedly recyclable containers out of landfills.

I also learned that many reporters in the mainstream media, which I was once part of, don’t have a clue about the food industry. I covered the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak for months and was embarrassed by how many times, almost daily, my counterparts in the consumer press got things flat-out wrong.

The dumbest thing I saw was from a large, daily newspaper that devoted an entire article to assuring its readers that tomatoes from their gardens were safe to eat.

I’ll be starting a new job with a national medical association based here in the Kansas City area the week of Nov. 17. I can only hope my sources there will be as helpful as the people I’ve met in this industry.

In 3½ years, I’ve visited terminal markets in Atlanta; Chicago; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit; New York and Philadelphia — some of them more than once. I’ve visited other wholesalers in Cincinnati; Nogales, Ariz.; McAllen, Texas, and right here in Kansas City.

I’ve also traveled to trade shows in California, Florida, Georgia and Texas and covered government meetings in Washington, D.C.

Wherever I’ve gone, one thing has been the same. The people in the industry have taken time to talk to me and made time to help me no matter the situation.

That was a big change from my previous job. Before coming to The Packer, I covered sports for daily newspapers for a dozen years. Dealing with the egos of college coaches and athletes was often hard to take. While trips to the Final Four and college football bowl games were fun, I don’t miss the sports world.

During the months I spent covering the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, there were numerous people in the industry I talked to daily. I was amazed by how many of these people — including grower-shippers like Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, Fla. — took time to talk to me during a crisis. Their insight helped us stay on top of the situation and allowed us to keep our Web site updated.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, was especially helpful during the outbreak, even taking calls on her cell phone while she was on vacation.

That’s the kind of dedication I came to expect from people in the industry, and that’s one of the many reasons I’ll miss it.

Lessons from produce carry over into everyday life
David Mitchell
Senior Writer