Painful Pivot for Produce Trade Associations:
To ‘Rightsize’ and Re-evaluate Their Purpose
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 8, 2020
With the pandemic causing the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) to lay off many longtime staffers, and the foodservice side of the produce industry still reeling, we’ve been evaluating the best approach for the industry to follow when it comes to assessing the future of its national trade associations. This is not a new discussion… we’ve been writing about the future role of our two national trade associations for decades, and you can see some of those discussions here.
With the start of the pandemic, we raised this question:
Shouldn’t Our Industry Associations Try To Support One Another?
After Coronavirus, The Time May Be Right To Look At PMA/United Merger Once Again
That brought a former chairman of one of the two national produce associations to share an informed perspective:
Pundit’s Mailbag — Welcome Comments About Possible PMA/United Merger
Then Bruce Peterson, who had deep involvement in both produce and grocery trade associations when building the Walmart produce program — including becoming Chairman of PMA — shared his thoughts with us:
Bruce Peterson Asks The Question:
How Can Today’s Produce Associations Serve The Industry? ...And Who Will Pay For It?
Now we have a letter from another former Chair of one of the national associations, who has also served on committees for both associations. Today’s correspondent has worked on both the retail and grower/shipper side of the business:
I hope you have been well and I will say right up front that I would like to stay anonymous in this response.
I value the conversation you bring to our industry and have always admired your deep understanding of subjects that seem to baffle many.
I believe that the days of association’s national trade show conferences are past their purpose.
We all go to these national shows to be on defense, as it is a large social program of taking the high sponsorship money of the established shippers and creating a location for people in need of customers (often with no strategy) to poach from established relationships of others.
I think the whole idea was established when companies all lacked scale and the retailers were small and we couldn’t establish a supply chain to save ourselves. Today, it has changed and relationships are solid and established with time, money and transparency between companies.
Education at shows is always a great thing, but today education for our business is everywhere. Every metropolitan area of the country has numerous classes, seminars and on-line activity for coaching and development. Also it is a good thing that this education isn’t produce-only and takes in the wealth of practice elsewhere in the business world.
On the Food Safety and Policy front, there is a need for help, but you must remember that most growing districts have a lot of organizations filling much of that need. A central policy champion like United Fresh is helpful/needed but only as a national source. We don’t need United Fresh and PMA doing the same work. United Fresh is plenty equipped and has proven it for decades.
Business and personal networking are a positive as always, but this can be achieved without a show that costs many of us in the 6-digit dollar range. I just did a zoom meeting of 50 peers, and it was fun and free.
As you know, networking with customers is already done weekly and monthly in today’s produce business world.
And we all know that advertising, press and PR are tools that can help us win favor (as in Produce Business magazine and various other outlets). Teams and Zoom meetings have made relationship-building even easier than travel. The Zoom burnout is only because we are all reacting at once and it will level off.
Budgets have been under pressure in agriculture for the past few years, and the only bright point of the pandemic is reduced travel budgets, which will never fully return We all needed this financial relief in a big way as it had gotten out of hand. This conversation is one that I have heard from many also.
Last of all, I will speak to the regional shows/associations, such as your New York Produce Show. These shows are a good thing if run well as is your New York show. Most of them have kept a balance of size, time and cost. They also allow us to meet produce managers, merchandisers and local store owners who already carry our products and lack the story or information. This is a tool that a national show can’t begin to deliver.
Retailers will, of course, not even send their staff to national shows without the fees being paid for. I see restrictions on retailer travel becoming a normal thing moving forward too.
As we start this new decade, we must pivot to what is really needed by our industry, and the associations that remain should focus on needs, not revenue-generation, for their own association. Income or revenue, of course, is needed but can be drastically reduced if we pair up true needs with true costs.
In business, we call it rightsizing. Pivoting is painful sometimes, but it is needed.
We followed up with this note:
Appreciate your note. Very insightful.
What is interesting is we have received so many responses, many from owners, CEOs of billion-dollar companies, etc. — yet only people who are basically consultants or otherwise outside the business now seem to feel OK about using their names.
This is very different than, for example, when the board of FMI decided to close the FMI show; the CEOs of major supermarkets weren’t worried about what the staff of FMI thought.
The problem, of course, is not really with the Pundit. The problem is that, even in board meetings, people tell me they don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions.
Our correspondent followed up:
You are a super wise person, so you will know what I say... it always revolves around trust or lack of it. When trust is lacking, fear builds itself.
One of the questions this letter raises is who exactly are our associations supposed to serve? This is probably a more pointed question for PMA than for United.
United seems pretty clearly focused on government relations, and its various events and activities are a combination of fundraiser and efforts to maintain engagement and connection so that it can have viable membership clout when it seeks to influence government relations.
PMA is less clear. There was a time when things like international marketing were mysteries. The Pundit Poppa was a pioneer in produce import and export, and he hated it when PMA began its International Trade Seminar. He saw it as PMA trying to put together his suppliers with his customers and drive him out of business.
To its credit, PMA is very clear about what it is focused on. You can read PMA’s strategic plan on its website. These are the five key priorities:
We will focus on:
Demand Creation— because our members need more ideas that increase the presence and sales of their products and services.
Industry Talent— because our members need tools and programs that attract, develop and retain top talent.
Global Connections— because our members need to maintain or grow their business – by measures relevant to them.
Science and Technology— because our members need deeper understanding of emerging science and technologies to enhance food safety and operational efficiencies.
Sustainability— because our members need education to help them develop, share and adopt best practices.
Over the years, we have often been given the opportunity to participate in PMA’s strategic planning process, and we have always had private communication with board members. We have always found the process thorough and enlightening. We can’t imagine that any board member didn’t benefit from the information presented and the process that was gone through.
Surely the five key focus points are all important. Yet, there is also a kind of thin gruel here as well.
Demand creation has virtually unanimous support in the industry. But the industry also has the Produce for Better Health Foundation. Here is its purpose:
Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) is a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization whose mission is to achieve increased daily consumption of fruits and vegetables for better health by leveraging private industry and public sector resources, motivating key consumer influencers, and promoting fruits and vegetables directly to consumers. PBH acts as a respected liaison between the industry and the public health community. As a result, no other food group has the public health support that fruits and vegetables enjoy.
There was a proposal to have the produce industry undertake a generic promotion similar to the Dairy Industry and its Got Milk? campaign. We were deeply engaged in that debate, and you can read all about it here. In the end, though, the industry declined to invest in this way.
The reason was really three-fold:
First, the industry was really looking for a way to see if it could get the retail sector involved in paying for this, and the industry was not quite able to find a path.
Second, there were internal issues that made produce a distinctive case from dairy or beef or other similar marketing efforts. Some produce items, say pears, take a long time between planting and harvest; other items can be planted and harvested in weeks, so the impact of increased demand is different. If you increase demand for pears, you receive higher prices for pears for a long time before new orchards can be established and harvested. If you increase demand for a quick-growing crop, marketing efforts might increase demand, but that will often be met by increased production, which may or may not benefit the people who paid for the marketing effort.
Third, although everyone in the industry supports more consumption in abstract, if you are a family farm and grow 50 acres of greens and you are going to keep farming your 50 acres regardless of the demand, it is not obvious that your farm will be any more prosperous if demand for greens increases. After all, others will increase production to meet demand, and it is not clear prices will increase at all.
Now PMA is a financially strong association. But it doesn’t have an income anywhere near what is raised through mandatory commodity boards as exist in beef, pork, dairy, etc. For example, U.S. pork producers and importers pay $0.40 per $100 of value when pigs are sold and when pigs or pork products are brought into the United States. Sometimes this is paid twice as when a pig is sold as a young “feeder pig” and then, again, when it is sold as a “market hog.” So PMA is not in a financial position to serve as a replacement for generic industry promotion.
So the precise role of PMA and PBH is unclear. And there is not much evidence that, in fact, PMA has been particularly successful in demand-creation.
The Center for Growing Talent by PMA is a terrific organization. This Pundit was on the board that Jay and Ruthie Pack set up to start what evolved into the Career Pathways program. We wrote the first guidelines given out to the students, and much more. PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine continues to support the program. Our complaint with the program has been the way it has treated its founders. You go into their website and type in “Jay Pack” and literally, nothing, comes up:
We think this is terrible, and we know for a fact that this attitude has led to some companies refusing to support the organization.
We continue, still, to support the program. Yet what this really has to do with PMA is less clear. If the Center for Growing Talent was a fully autonomous organization and considered sending the Pack students to PMA, United, United’s Washington Public Policy Conference, Fruit Logistica, Asia Fruit Logistic, our own New York Produce Show, etc., maybe it would be better for the industry.
Of course the industry is now global. But it has been global for a very long time. Of course, PMA and its programs and events can facilitate introductions, but this is not the great mystery it once was when the Pundit Poppa was in the game.
In fact, global trade really defines the industry. The New York Times ran a piece in 2018 titled, Most of America’s Fruit is Now imported. Is That a Bad Thing? The article pointed out that by 2016, the proportion of fresh fruit eaten in the US that was imported had hit 53.1%.
Assessing these things can be very tricky. A PMA member who attends Fresh Summit may, in fact, meet a buyer from China and do business, but if PMA sold Fresh Summit to a large trade show producer, there is no reason to believe that this type of thing wouldn’t continue to happen.
Science and Technology
Again, everybody is in favor of this, but it is not clear that PMA is uniquely suited to this purpose. PMA was a founder and has generously supported the Center for Produce Safety. Yet there is a little bit of “Chicken and the Egg” here. Because of its very successful trade show, PMA makes a lot of money, then it uses some of the money for important industry needs.
There also has, perhaps, been some duplication in the Science and Technology arena in staffing between PMA and United. After the Spinach Crisis, PMA executives felt it important to have their own food safety staff so as to serve their own members.
This reminds us of our letter-writer’s point about there being many local resources available. You can get a master’s degree in sustainability at almost every university. There may be specific things to learn if you are growing a particular crop, but in a global/national association it is not clear what is the unique lessons of sustainability or why a national association would do a better job in this arena than, say, the Western Growers Association or the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.
Our writer’s letter today reminds us of the old California Iceberg Lettuce Commission, which was run by Wade Whitfield. The industry decided to dissolve the board in the early 1990s. The reason? Due to industry consolidation, there was a feeling that the board did little that the large players who dominated lettuce industry couldn’t do for themselves.
Our writer today is, in a way, raising the same questions that ended the California Iceberg Lettuce Commission. In a world with large players, what do they need an association to do that they cannot do for themselves?
Here is where government relations shines as a function for associations.
Even if an industry is dominated by large companies, these companies are not likely to be the ones received with most sympathy at a Congressional committee hearing. So large players need to pay the bills, while small players tend to be highlighted in testimony and promotion. It is a win-win.
There were thoughts years ago that PMA, owning the big revenue source for the industry in the form of Fresh Summit, might agree to donate a set amount each year to United to fund government relations. Perhaps that should be looked at again.
Or, perhaps, merger should again be considered.
Albert Einstein used the German term — Gedankenexperiment — which roughly translates as “thought experiment” — to think through the consequences of something.
Here is one for us: If tomorrow we sold PMA’s trade shows for tens of millions of dollars and put that money in a foundation to help the produce industry with student scholarships, food safety research etc., what would we want PMA to do? How would this be different from what we want United to do? Or regional groups such as WGA?
If you feel you have thoughts that could help the industry to advance, please let us know here. Let us know if you want to maintain confidentiality.