I had the chance to chat on Nov. 2 with economist Desmond O’Rourke, president of Belrose, Inc., Pullman, Wash.


3:42 p.m. Tom Karst: Thanks for taking time for a chat this afternoon. I had a chance to look at your report called the "Lowdown on buying local" and wanted to ask you about your research, so thanks for making time...

3:44 p.m. Before I ask you about that, though, I'm curious about your path from Ireland to Washington State. Tell our readers about your career path that took you from Ireland to Washington State University, to become one of the world's foremost apple experts.

3:45 p.m. Desmond O’Rourke:  I worked in marketing for several years in Ireland before deciding to come to UC Davis for further education. I ended up with a doctorate in Ag Econ in 1970.

3:46 p.m. Tom: That was a UC Davis degree in Ag Econ?

3:48 p.m. Desmond: Yes. After graduation, I came to Washington State and, like many other economists, got roped into doing studies on the state's biggest Ag industry. The industry has quadrupled in size and met many challenges since 1970. So, I just kept working on those new challenges.

3:50 p.m. Tom: Washington state does enjoy many advantages in apple production. What attribute or characteristic of the state has been most helpful to its continued strength as an apple producer?

3:52 p.m. Desmond: It has great natural conditions for growing apples. In addition, there is great accumulated industry wisdom from family dynasties and, in recent years, an influx of new talent.

3:53 p.m. Tom: Switching gears, as we talk about your new report - available for free to readers, by the way, at your web site at www.e-belrose.com - - what prompted you to look at this issue?

3:56 p.m. Desmond: I was concerned about the sweeping claims that are currently being made for buying local. I had worked on a number of direct marketing projects when the original Direct Farm-to-Consumer Act of 1976 was passed, I think it is important for us more mature economists to help people avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

3:59 p.m. Tom: Your report talks about the various reasons that local has been elevated as a marketing issue - if you had to rate the factors, do you think it was the escalation in oil prices, changing political thinking, or some other fact that propelled the local food movement so quickly?

4:03 p.m. Desmond: For those promoting buying local, there was a happy coincidence between rising concerns about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions and the high cost of oil. It appeared to strengthen their arguments for buying local.

4:05 p.m. Tom: Many commercial shippers of fruits and vegetables probably want to "get ahead" of this issue. What are some of the ways apple shippers in Washington, for example, and other commercial shippers of fruits and vegetables should respond to this issue? Do you think this issue will be the defining marketing issue for the next few years?

4:09 p.m. Desmond: I will answer your last question first. No, I think that as local supplies increase, the competitive advantage to any major retailer will be reduced. They will become more concerned about how to satisfy an increa-singly thrifty consumer. I see shippers in states like California, Michigan and New York that are near to major met-ropolitan areas being able to gain substantial business as long as the buy local phase last. Distant shippers like Washington or New Zealand may lose some business. To compensate, they will have to be even more cost con-scious and service conscious.

4:15 p.m. Tom: You bring up the competition for consumers. As you point out, there may be science that says produce from a more distant source may be responsible for less greenhouse gas/energy than local produce. Yet that may be hard to communicate to consumers; should the effort me made, even so?

4:19 p.m. Desmond: I believe that it is absolutely essential for distant shippers to show the gains in efficiency and savings in energy and emissions from large, distant suppliers. The folks in New Zealand have made an excellent start in using life cycle analyses of their products to show why buying local is often not best for the planet. In cases, such as the UK, buying local is simply another form of protectionism. It needs to be challenged before the court of public opinion, the U.S. Congress, the WTO, or other relevant arenas.

4:22 p.m. Tom: Desmond, you have been generous with your time. One last question; I know your work takes you around the globe. How similar are the struggles of growers in other parts of the world to those producers in the U.S.? Do you feel the global tree fruit industry now - 2009 - is in a better position to meet the challenges today compared to 20 years ago?

4:28 p.m. Desmond: The struggles of tree fruit producers in other parts of the world are similar in nature, but often worse in magnitude than those faced in the United States. For example, New Zealand is at a great distance from its major markets, Chile has been handicapped by its strong currency, Italy has much higher costs, Poland has severe infrastructure problems, etc. However, I believe the biggest challenge all producing areas now face is the unrealistic demands being placed on them by the major retailers for certifications on safety, traceability, sustainability, etc., etc., without offering adequate compensation. I think the produce industry needs a united front to get more realistic trading terms from the mega-retailers.

4:29 PM Tom: Desmond, thanks again.

Desmond: You are welcome.