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Meet The Gastronomes — And Learn About Their Mission To Increase Produce Consumption — At The New York Produce Show And Conference

Our piece, Food “To Die For” May Do Just That… Seminal Study Encouraging The Eating Of Bitter Vegetables For Health To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show And Conference, highlighted two truly fascinating presentations that are being given by Professor Morini at the upcoming edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference and the co-located “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum.

Professor Morini works for a University in Italy, which is a new member of the University Exchange Program that is a key component of The New York Produce Show and Conference. We wanted to know more about the milieu of this university that is producing such interesting research, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:

Alice Noel Fabi
Ufficio Tutor
University of Gastronomic Sciences
(Universita Degli Studi Di Scienze Gastronomiche)
Pollenzo, Italy

Q: Professor Morini provided a fascinating preview of her talk she will be presenting at The New York Produce Show and Conference. You will be joining her from Italy to participate in our University Exchange Program, along with students from this innovative school. Could you tell us more about yourself and the mission of your program?

A: I am a former student. I attended a master course and, after graduating, became a tutor, which has a different meaning than in the U.S. We organize all academic study trips. Then we accompany them. Students take part in five trips per year, which is an integral part of their learning. What they learn in theory in class, they put into practice, getting contact with food producers, restaurant operators, media and all sectors concerning the food world

The University is based in Pollenzo, a very small town in the Piedmont region. It is close to Bra, the center of the slow food movement.

We were founded in 2004 as a private non-profit institution to create an educational research platform for renewing farming methods, protecting biodiversity, and building a strong relationship to gastronomy, agriculture and science. The idea is that students learn food from all different angles, blending science and humanistic subjects; gastronomy, biology, chemistry, history, agriculture, anthropology, and sociology. Apart from that, we also do sensory training, tasting lectures take place in our sensory lab, and there is an important international component.

Q: What are the reasons behind the University’s development? Was there a real need?

A: The concept behind the school was to educate a new figure in the work field, a gastronome. This is a person who believes in a sustainable approach to agriculture, and seeing the world of food with a new perspective to help producers and consumers.

Having studied so many subjects, a gastronome can see the big picture and become an expert in consultancy for companies looking to take into account many factors instead of sticking with one mindset or narrow view. Employment is extremely high after graduation. Over 1000 graduates are now working in the food sector.

In our most recent graduating class of 100 students, 74 have found work within 6 months and 18 went on further study. Our university has strong contacts with different companies in the food sector, in Italy mainly, but our scope is broad. Half our students are international from 64 countries, and lectures are held both in English and Italian.

By sharing this course with people in different cultures, an exchange is already happening. Lots of students decide to open food production companies. Others may be working at a foodservice company wanting to put the attention on local and seasonal foods, or a media position to reeducate the public.

Q: What is the message you’re looking to communicate?

A: We’re trying to get the message across that food should be grown and consumed with ways that don’t destroy the environment, fairly compensate those working within the food chain and that it is a human right to have quality food available to everyone.

Q: Tell us more about the international travel component. Is your participation at The New York Produce Show and Conference connected to this part of the program?

A: The New York Produce Show is external but incorporates the goals of the program trips, which are both thematic and territorial. Thematic could involve spending five days in different companies producing pasta or coffee, and learning in depth about production, administration and marketing concerning one specific product.

For territorial, one leans to a specific region or area or country, discovering the gastronomy of an area, no one theme. We focus on different cultural and economic aspects, how different foods are consumed, and the history of the area. The program is developed around those segments.

It’s very social, getting in contact with people who produce and sell food, understanding the culture and the problems, and everything linked to those problems.

I took a master class one year in Italian gastronomy and tourism, where I visited seven different regions. The school is very multidisciplinary in its subjects. Courses vary from food journalism and media to micro biology of food. My program was tighter in one year, but this is what students do in three years as undergraduates. .

The focus is more on communicating these concepts through journalism and writing. It can be challenging conveying some of these issues to the public.

Q: Why? Do you find many consumers misinformed?

A: People don’t spend enough time on what they buy and eat. It’s not necessarily their fault. They aren’t thinking about how the food is produced. What happens is that most food is produced on a large scale, and the consumer becomes detached. Much of it is not healthy.

Our system has created a series of food insecurity issues. Yet, at the same time, there are people eating an abundance of food leading to problems of obesity and sickness related to food consumption. On the other hand, we have those who are undernourished, even though our system produces enough food that could feed the whole planet. The other problem is food waste. People are not aware of the economic issues related to the food world.

The solution I’ve come to believe as a student studying and working is to raise awareness through any media form so people understand what is behind industry and food consumption and linked to everyday life. Good quality food should not just be for rich people.

Q: With an international student base, are there dynamic perspectives on the issues?

A: For our master classes, the majority of students come from the U.S., which is one of the most represented nationalities at the school. When we have a debate, the U.S. is taken as an example for some of the biggest problems in food production. It is difficult to compare with Italy. The cultural importance of food in family here has become less and less with modernization, but food still plays a focal role in family, whereas maybe less in the U.S.

In terms of identity linked to food, it is very strong in Italy and so diverse by regions. Italians connect their identities with food demographically in what we eat and buy.

Q: I imagine students can assess these contrasts first-hand through the travel program. Could you describe some of the most enlightening trips?

A: One of the thematic trips we do is a retail supermarket focus. We also were hosted by a company dealing with importing and exporting fresh produce, a new trip we started last year. The students get in contact with industrial importers and exporters of vegetables in their third year. In the second year, there is a course in vegetable production and animal production as well, where students study all the scientific and practical implications of growing fruits and vegetables.

Q: Do students address the three legs of sustainability: environmental, social and economic?

A: Sustainability must encompass all three legs, but the concept has created lots of confusion. The term has been used in the wrong manner, especially with companies where they want to appear sustainable. The main point is to think of solutions to really achieve a sustainable cycle.

In essence, something sustainable doesn’t need inputs from the outside, which means not relying on external resources and trying to develop internal ones. It’s most practical in agriculture but also applies to other fields as well.

In Umbria, we visited a producer of high quality meat, where production is biodynamic. Through the manure of his animals, he can create all the necessary production. He also manages production of vegetables, olive oil and wine with limited external outputs. He reuses waste, parts of the plants not used for consumption for safe feed, composting, and giving more nutrition to the ground. all done in a scientific and proven way.

Q: Is there also a focus on food safety?

A: Food safety comes into the plan. A big link to our University is the Slow Food Movement, which is headquartered here in Bra. Food safety is a strong theme discussed during events. They are continuously in contact about contemporary issues, and in discussions to find solutions on these themes. 

Q: What do you believe the biggest challenges are going forward?

A: Raising awareness is a key challenge. So is food serenity and protecting diversity of plants and animals. We’re talking about protecting traditional knowledge. We created a new research program that involves digital recording on trips, and gathering testimonials of older generations. It could be producers that might not have children to follow in their footsteps. We are risking losing a really important treasure of traditional knowledge. This research program aims to immortalize with recordings and videos for future generations.

We work toward giving back the value to farming and jobs linked to production of food, getting young people to be willing to work in the industry again. Students take this message with them when they graduate.

Our goal is to give value to food production so young people feel interested in going into the field.

Q: That is one of our goals as well through our University Exchange Program at The New York Produce Show and Conference. We are honored to host faculty and students from the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Professor Morini’s presentation sounds intriguing.

A: Professor Morini has done lots of research in areas to bring children closer to consumption of fruits and vegetables.

In a recent event, our students organized workshops on reeducating students with food. There was tasting, giving classes to children, educating them on how healthy food can be, but also fun, tasty and interesting.

There is a big cultural leaning to fruits and vegetables in the Mediterranean diet, but looking at figures in Europe, there are strong problems of childhood obesity, probably a problem that hasn’t been talked about enough. People have the perception that in Europe people eat healthy,

In the U.S., what I saw during a trip to New York is that students are more involved in urban farming. In talking about the slow food movement, it’s the younger generations.

Q: How would you define the slow food movement?

A: It’s so many things coming from a basic philosophy born in 1989 in Italy. It’s now present in 170 countries worldwide. The slow movement is about preserving biodiversity, providing access to quality food to everyone, food security, raising awareness, working with people to open farmer markets, and create urban gardens, and the list goes on. It’s difficult to sum up but in one sentence I’d say, confronting social, economic and environment issues with food and understanding how they are interlinked.

Q: The University of Gastronomic Sciences sounds like a wonderful school… Who will you be bringing to the show?

A: We have a Russian student studying in Italy three years, who will be coming with us.

In New York, we also have about 10 alumni working in different sectors, and all different jobs, so we will have some of these visiting as well. These students are mainly American. A friend of mine from Atlanta who was in my course is now working at Eataly, We actually have two graduates working there.

Q: That’s great. Eataly was a tour highlight at our inaugural New York Produce Show, and attendees will be able to visit again if they choose as part of this year’s tour selection.

A: The first Eataly was in Piedmont, Italy. It started here, and a main investor is linked with our University. It’s a small world.

It certainly is… and it is a chance to mingle with such interesting people. Learning about interesting institutions and intriguing ideas is all part of what allows The New York Produce Show and Conference to deliver new ideas and thus enhance the creativity of the whole industry.

We confess that to an American, the idea of a university with a pre-determined position on substantive matters is discomforting. We have always thought of a university as a place for rigorous discussion of conflicting ideas. Harvard’s motto is Veritas, or truth; Yale’s is Lux et Veritas, or light and truth, the University of Chicago is Crescat scientia; vita excolatur, or "Let Knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched." This is very different from deciding, before the study has begun, that there is a certain value that is the correct one.

It also strikes us that the ideas the school looks to promote do not a priori suggest any policy response. So one can agree that people should be “fairly compensated”  indeed it is almost a truism  who, exactly, believes people should be “unfairly compensated”  but this consensus doesn’t tell us how much to pay a field worker in Africa or whether raising that wage will move production to a more convenient locale and thus unemploy the African fieldworker.

To an American, some of the philosophical tenants of the school raise questions.  We typically define rights as negatives  things government should not do so to allow freedom. So it is written that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” But we do not have a tradition in America that obligates the government to provide each citizen with a newspaper so he can pronounce his opinions. Equally, our Bill of Rights states:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” But it makes no provision for guaranteeing that there will be sufficient funds to ensure that everyone can establish the church of their preference.

So to an American to say that it is “a human right to have quality food available to everyone” raises lots of questions. Who, precisely, is obligated to provide this food — high or low quality? How did these people come to possess this responsibility to which they have not consented? Are there no obligations of the recipient of such food? Can he be obligated to work, to be prudent in his savings, to avoid wasting money on drugs or alcohol or cigarettes?

Of course it is precisely because these ideas challenge pre-existing American notions that we welcome Alice Noel Fabi, professor Morini and the students and alumni of the Universita Degli Studi Di Scienze Gastronomiche to The New York Produce Show and Conference. In addition to Professor Moroni’s talks, which we profiled here, Alice Noel Fabi will give a presentation about the school.

It wouldn’t surprise us at all if some attendees, or their adult children, wind up finding a way to do a year of study at the university. What a wonderful place to spend a year and how incredibly mind-opening an experience it would surely be.

Untill you get the Piedmont Region of Italy, at least come and hear Professor Morini and Alice Noel Fabi speak out.

Please come and join us at The New York Produce Show and Conference. You can register right here.

Book your hotel room right at this link.

Get all kinds of travel discounts here.

The spouse program can be registered for here.

Tours here.

The Global Trade Symposium here.

And The “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum right here.

And you get info on sponsorship or exhibiting opportunities right here.

Come to New York in December. It’s the capital of the world, and it is filled with capital ideas to help your business grow.




Immigration, One Of The Hottest Post-Election Issues, Will Be Brought To The Floor Of The New York Produce Show And Conference

With the election behind us, many issues that were simply “too hot to handle” are going to come to the forefront.

Immigration is likely to be one of these newly prominent issues.

Indeed one interpretation of the election results is that the Republican party needs to boost its appeal to Latinos. Many assume that the best way to do this is to embrace amnesty for those illegals already in the country.

This assessment has its own problems. A close read of the election results indicates that the Republican problem could be seen as more an inability to inspire White voters to come to the polls than it was any boom in Hispanic turnout. It is also uncertain whether changing positions on immigration would be sufficient to change Hispanic voting patterns. Even if it would, would that change be significant enough to outweigh more Hispanic voters? And, of course, amnesty always poses the magnet problem. If you do amnesty once  and this would be a second time as President Reagan did a large amnesty program  then the possibility of a future amnesty will, in and of itself, attract more illegal immigrants.

In any case the issue is likely to become a hot one, and soon. It is also an issue where the produce industry has interests.

We got wind that a triumvirate of Cornell’s finest were working on an immigration project, so we signed them up to present at The New York Produce Show and Conference. Then we sent Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more and to get a kind of “sneak preview” of their presentation:

Brad Rickard
Assistant Professor
Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
and Director of Horticultural Business and Policy Program
Cornell University


 

Marc Smith
Assistant Director at New York State Agricultural Experiment Station
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Cornell University

 

 

Thomas Maloney
Senior Extension Associate
Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Cornell University

Q: Thank you for coming together to discuss your latest research that you will be presenting at this year’s New York Produce Show. Brad has captivated past attendees with a study of generic produce promotions, as well as exploring branding strategies by analyzing the marketing effect of different names on apple varieties. Could you tell us more about this year’s topic?

Brad: We’re just starting a new grant project focused on a critical issue to the industry that has become highly politicized during the election cycle. The working title of our talk is “Labor Policy and Labor Management Options for Producers of Specialty Crops in the United States.” [Editor’s note: you can read related background research here and here.

Q: Will you be evaluating how the outcome of the election could impact immigration reform and labor policy?

Brad: Absolutely, now that the election results are in, we will use the talk to assess the impact of the election on these matters. There will be some discussion on actions taking place nationally and also what states are doing on their own, guest worker programs, and the importance of immigrant labor in specialty crop agriculture.

Marc: To frame it, this is such a complex issue and a long running issue as well. It goes back 25 to 30 years or more… indeed to the beginning of the Republic. There have been many frustrating policy failures, which most of our constituents have lived through. How do farmers deal with this, and how can we help them succeed?

There is the policy-component element, the regulations and enforcement, and the impact in different states. On the promising side, people are taking courses of action to learn to cope with policy, finding other mechanisms or different labor sources, an enlightened resources element.

Brad: We think this issue is very important in the Northeast. It’s the Number One issue specialty crop producers bring up in the Northeast and for that matter across the U.S. I thought it would be an interesting topic for the show. PRODUCE BUSINESS did its cover story in December 2011 on the Top 10 Trends determined by interviewing produce industry leaders. Among all the topics, including food safety, the Number One issue was immigration reform and the need for legal farm labor. The question of having enough labor resonated as a serious concern.

Tom: I heard an interesting report on NPR [National Public Radio] while driving in for this interview. There were not enough workers to pick apples in New York State. The bottom line for farmers is that they live in fear of not having enough workers when they need them. Business is going to be harder if farmers have to avoid immigrants not authorized to be in the U.S.

Q: Are there ways to alleviate this problem?

Tom: Growers want to plan ahead to have enough workers but are not sure what the labor force will be. That’s where we have to have alternatives. They want answers.

Marc: Farmers are asking, “Even if I need to hire immigrants, how can I minimize risks? Agents are swarming in on my farm. What are my best options?”

Just the regulations involved with H-2A will change, depending on what Administration is in power. The state department role is extremely confusing on top of the program itself being a burdensome exercise.

Brad: H-2A is the federal guest-worker program in the U.S., which allows a certain number of seasonal workers to come into the U.S. for limited timeframes. I believe the stay is 8 to 10 months.

Q: Is the H-2A program effective?

Marc: It is underutilized. There are 1.2 million workers in the country coming here from overseas. Less than 10 percent of fruit and vegetable workers are working through this program under the U.S. Department of Labor. The state labor departments coordinate with the federal labor department. The first line of content is the state. Growers apply for a permit at the state level, and it is approved at the federal level.

Tom: I think an important point is that under the Obama Administration, H-2A has become more cumbersome and more difficult to get workers. Farmers want more qualifications and experienced people, and the Labor Department is saying you don’t need that experience.

It is more difficult to use in the past few years, and people don’t want to give up a guaranteed flow of workers and have them be legal. There is a ying and yang about doing the program. It’s unwieldy and costly. There is much more tension, even though it’s a small percentage.

Marc: It is very trying and only applies to seasonal workers. Dairy farmers can’t use it at all. Farmers have options. They can try to find people on their own. The challenges and roots of any guest-worker program go back to all the political conflict.

Q: Could you underscore the conflicts?

Marc: For farmers, they want to minimize risk and make sure workers are legal, and flow is efficient and timely. If you are an advocate involved in policy and justice, you don’t like guest-worker programs because they are set up as second-class citizens… and by the way, you should be hiring U.S. laborers. The longstanding desire to be just is always there. And people who administer the program are serving different interests.

Tom: The process is expensive and messy, negotiated by farm management groups and worker groups. When it gets down to it, speaking as worker advocates, you will put requirements into the program to protect workers, such as experience ratings, and what kinds of qualifications workers need.

Marc: In the farmer’s perfect world, you can bring back the people you know, and the most experienced, understanding sometimes that they are not available and there will be turnover.

Q: How does the H-2A worker selection process actually work?

Marc: Sometimes people running the program accept workers from Puerto Rico because it is part of the U.S., or they focus on more local workers. You have to more or less accept who they send you, for whatever reason they say. The Labor Department has much more control than the farmers do on who they’re hiring.

Tom: Worker advocates push for the ability of the worker to move around to different jobs. The primary objection of worker advocates is that a worker be indentured to one employee for the season.

H-2A is one class of visa, but this is true with others as well. There is competition with people hiring cousins and brothers of workers they already know have skills they want and do this all off the radar — a black market of sorts — until the Labor Department takes them away. We have a legitimate legal system that conflicts with this other one.

Q: What are the legal ramifications? How strong is enforcement? Does it differ significantly based on the state in which you are operating?

Marc: Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE), a group within the Department of Homeland Security, seems to be most prevalent in border states; think Texas and Arizona with Mexico, but New York is one because of Canada. There has been a big influx of federal funding over the past six to eight years, and you see ICE on the Canadian border.

Tom: What has happened is that ICE has increased 10 times since 9/11. Per capita, ICE has more of its enforcement resources, and you’ll see more visitors showing up on your farm.

Q: Are you saying the impetus for the increased enforcement is security-related? Aren’t there other political motivations in play?

Tom: ICE is questioning numbers of H-2A applications. Part of it is that unemployment is much higher in the U.S., and political pressures are much bigger. The Department of Labor is forced to ask the question, “Do we have U.S. citizens willing and able to do the work on specialty crops?”

Q: Do Americans even want these jobs?

Marc: The answer is no. Things haven’t changed, but politicians are forced to ask. It’s an extra hurdle convincing the Department of Labor. Tom is waging the argument that people assume these jobs are being taken away by foreigners: All you have to do is have these people go away and pay more and you’ll increase the employment rate.

Tom: I look at our surveys and other state surveys, and it is not uncommon to have wages around $10 an hour in our industry. If you compare this to other industries, the notion is false that farm workers are paid below minimum wage or are cheap labor.

Brad: This brings us back to the parallel challenge of managing human resources well. We still need to harvest that crop every year. Tom has been working on this for decades; extension programs to help farmers manage their workforce.

You need to know the value of workers, how do you treat them well and best pay them. Part of the H-2A program is a wage formula, with transportation and housing requirements.

Q: Are standards within the grower community generally uniformed, or are there major differences based on state, commodity groups, size of operation, individual company business practice, etc.?

Tom: There is a spectrum on what housing you provide, wages, hours, like any business. Within H-2A, there are prescribed requirements. Other than that, it’s uneven. Some companies are progressive and enlightened. At the other end, there are bad actors that make it difficult for everyone.

Marc: It’s a difficult challenge to get the people in the middle and the low end to do the practices of the top percent. There are so many examples of companies doing the right practices. People in the top 10 percent to 20 percent are doing quite a good job. Some people muddle along, and others do bad things. It covers the whole spectrum, and as Tom says, the goal is pushing the best practices.

Q: How important is H-2A to a grower’s operation now?

Marc: H-2A is a small slice. Some employers say they get buried in paperwork, workers don’t show up on time and it’s a huge burden. Others say it works for me. Why the difference? The employers that are successful hire someone dedicated to the management of the H-2A program, and they spread that work over more acres. There are different ways to manage the program.

Tom: When you have immigrants working for you and you’re not sure if they are legally in the U.S., you are concerned. You feel you’re taking a lot of risk. We have managers who say they try to use more local people, or try to mechanize to reduce reliance on laborers or the H-2A program. The strategy part from a farmer’s perspective is very important. Marc and I have spent a lot of time on this.

Brad: This is a good segue to our latest research project. We were just awarded a new grant under USDA’s AMF Specialty Crop Research Initiative. The way a crop grant works, each state is given a budget. The amount of funds allocated depends on industry in that state, and ranges from $250,000 a year to $19 million in California. It’s a competitive process.

The USDA announced the proposals they’ll fund. In New York, 10 projects were funded. Tom and I and a grad student received one. The title of our grant is similar to the title of the talk we’re giving in December at the New York Produce Show: Labor strategies and policy discussion focused on issues in New York. However, our talk will appeal more broadly across the U.S.

Tom will be speaking at the 2013 Becker Forum, which looks at labor management. He will focus on ways to cope with few laborers from Mexico. It will be held January 21 in Syracuse, New York, and attracts about 150 specialty crop producers in the Northeast.

Q: What reforms in labor policies do you think should be enacted to best help producers of specialty crops? How likely do you believe these reforms will take place? Immigration reform is fraught with contentious debate…

Brad: Plans moving forward must be to think more carefully about labor management solutions, looking at how federal policies have evolved, and understanding state policies that diverge from federal policies. We need more guest worker visas and reforms. Unfortunately, it is a very controversial topic and politicians tend to stay away from it.

Tom: Unemployment is a real problem politically; this drumbeat of no amnesty is pervasive enough that people who do want policy to change are hesitant to act.

Q: You emphasized earlier that the H-2A program has become more cumbersome under the Obama Administration, yet isn’t it ironic that he also is fighting to pass the Dream Act and opening the door to amnesty for young people who have lived here their whole lives?

In the same regard, Mitt Romney, at least during the Republican primaries, took a harsh stance against the Dream Act and any type of amnesty program, yet he says he is a strong proponent of the free market. Then there are heightened concerns with economic volatility and unemployment, and fears that illegal immigrants are stealing jobs from U.S. citizens, and of course, the issue of securing the border… Aren’t there contradictions and dichotomies here?

Marc: History goes back to the early to mid-90s. I come from a dairy farm where for years the thought was about hiring Mexican workers. An evolution toward a different labor force started taking place. Tom was promoting new management, sponsoring trips to Mexico to learn the language, and getting the most out of a new resource.

Then down the line, probably 9/11, everything changed to a security focus and fear. A good thing promoting a labor force turned into a liability, and since then, it has been far more difficult to promote a normal approach to managing work on farms. Couple that with the historic resentment that a part of the population has against Mexicans and illegal immigrants, and you have a political firestorm.

Q: Doesn’t this political firestorm also create gridlock?

Tom: When President Obama was elected, immigration reform was highlighted as one of his top issues. Yes, H-2A is more cumbersome. But in terms of changing policy, it is striking how similar his administration’s website looks to President Bush’s on immigration reform, security on the border, and the way to stay here legally.

Marc: There has been a push-back on immigration reform in Congress. The President is challenged to work with the division. If you want any kind of reform, you first have to pay attention to security on the border and then maybe you can go on to address the economics of it. Even then, the President has faced a maelstrom since the last congressional election with the Tea Party folks. Still, I believe the leadership is now on the right track, but it is a difficult nut to crack.

Brad: Marc is talking about division in government, but even in the industry, there is not a consensus. Go to different states and the farm bureaus and guest-worker programs and labor policy issues are very different in emphasis. In places like California and Arizona, there are more words in policies about guest workers and immigration reform.

Then in the middle of the country, where much labor is mechanized, other issues dealing with droughts and ethanol and energy policies are more important there. Immigration labor reform is a non-issue in certain parts of the country. It is hard to have reform when there isn’t a national request for a policy shift.

Q: Isn’t there a way to find common ground?

Marc: Distilled down, you have businesses and farmers, as Brad says, divided regionally. You have the folks who don’t like immigration period and want people sent home. And then others want the Dream Act and to make sure people are treated well if they are here for no fault of their own. Dream Act folks and others have common ground that agriculture should have with larger political groups.

Tom: We talk about coalition-building. We need to work within agriculture, and agriculture has to link itself to more influential allies. We could certainly do coalition-building in this state. Farmers are not used to doing this.

Fruit and vegetable growers can be set in their ways. If farmers are not used to taking on political issues, they are going to be less effective. There is some learning to do in this respect. The blessing of being independent helps farmers succeed, but it is also a curse. Building allies is crucial.

Marc: We can do this through a grassroots effort and be effective in our own communities, connecting with the chamber of commerce, building bonds at church, and working together. It doesn’t mean a New York farmer needs to be in cahoots with a farmer in Texas.

In a talk I recently presented, I address states that have passed down legislation under the presumption the federal government is not doing their job, thus taking it upon themselves. Alabama is a good example. In places where there are large specialty crop sectors like Georgia, there are show-me-your-papers laws. Workers don’t show up. They leave the state, and Arizona is the beginning of this move toward restrictive laws.

In California, people pushed back, saying we can’t have anything like Alabama. No enforcement agency can ask you for papers. Aggressive actions were taken to build a fortress around California so that no such law comes in. There is a problem with these restrictive state laws. There should be federal jurisdiction. It doesn’t work with 50 different regulations. But there is frustration with the federal umbrella.

Q: What solutions will you propose when you address attendees at the New York Produce Show?

Tom: All this state activity has created fragmentation and made this more difficult. We’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time, the role of H-2A and the rise and fall of immigration reform. We want to provide management options for people thinking about labor policy, introduce other types of management systems, refugees as workers, and discuss the future for mechanizing these jobs.

We have machines for harvesting and processing vegetables. When that was introduced, it was a big deal in the 1960s and 1970’s. Now we’re seeing mechanization for the harvesting of fruit crops. What impacts could there be down the road?

For the H-2A program in New York State, we look to the Canadian model, which is a little more open, with a greater proportion of seasonal workers — about 30,000 people in the seasonal agriculture worker program. And, of course, there are guest-worker models in Europe, with workers brought in from Poland, Czech Republic, Turkey, and it seems to be working better than what we have in the U.S.

Marc: I’d like to leave people with encouragement to be proactive on the immigration policy side. The dust will settle after the presidential election and a new Congress is put in. The media keeps this in front.

People who support the Dream Act are strong and growing. Agriculture is organized, but there hasn’t been a way to get a bill to the floor. The congressional leaders in New York State understand these programs are a problem.

Being proactive politically is important.

Tom: I would agree with that completely. We need to be engaged on two fronts: proactive on the policy side, and, second, to understand what best practices are needed to work in this environment and then implement those best practices.

Perceptions need to change. Some people have the belief that the industry can use H-2A to solve the problem. It’s not adequate to accommodate the needs of agriculture. In addition, there is the idea that agriculture is filled with employers who want to exploit these workers. It is an idea that is false. Yes, there are bad actors, but in most cases, these workers are part of the family and valued. They are highly appreciated, and you can see that pan out in the community.

Brad: People not involved in agriculture have no grasp of working with perishable crops with a seasonal labor force and getting that labor force back each season. The timing is so critical. When you think about the skill it takes and how people throw around the idea that it is possible to use unskilled labor.

Tom: There is a radio personality in upstate New York who suggests farmers in need of labor just go to the unemployment office, assuming anyone can do this work with no experience. It’s a mistaken belief. Labor has been, and will be, the Number One issue for specialty crop producers in New York and many other states. It’s their top cost.

***

The issue of labor and produce is clearly important. At the recent PMA convention in Anaheim, Rainier Fruit Company decided to use the video presentation it receives as sponsor of a general session to highlight the issue of labor shortages for harvesting. Mark Zirkle, President and Director of Operations at Rainier, made his case plainly: Fruit was going unharvested due to a lack of available labor and producers need help.

Clearly there are two parts to this issue. The first is to help producers harvest their crops today. Understanding the most effective ways to use existing programs such as H2-A is a big part of that, and so this workshop can be absolutely crucial.

The larger issue is the policy question of how to handle immigration, guest-worker programs, etc. We’ve written quite a bit on the subject of immigration, and we have traced the trade’s efforts to get a guest-worker program enacted.

Those efforts have so far been unsuccessful.

We would say that they have been unsuccessful because they have not really been persuasive.

To start with, since we have three Cornell economists presenting, we hope they will start out by explaining what, exactly, it means to say that no Americans want to do this work.

In every other situation, a need for more resources of some type is dealt with in the exact same way: If there is not enough steel, we allow the price of steel to rise to a market-clearing level. This causes three things to happen: 1) The higher price attracts more production. New steel plants are built; existing plants start to add shifts; techniques that increase production that wouldn’t pay at lower prices are put into effect, 2) The higher price depresses demand. Cars get more expensive, etc. 3) New technologies become cost effective, so they make cars out of synthetics, etc.

These same dynamics function in the labor market as well. We get people to leave their families and live on platforms in the Arctic Sea, in deserts, etc. How is it possible that harvesting produce is the one occupation in which markets don’t work?

It just doesn’t make any sense.

Now, maybe $10 an hour is not sufficient to attract labor. Maybe the right number is $20 an hour or $100 an hour. Or maybe labor markets value something beyond an hourly wage. When we used to operate an import company, we needed salespeople and other workers who worked without limit during the Chilean season — seven days a week, often 12 or more hours a day. But we found we could not get such people on a seasonal basis.

We had to offer year-round employment with benefits. We barely had any work for these people off-season; just a few tropicals and exotics to work with. But hiring them year-round was the price we paid to have them available when we needed them.

Since harvesting is physically demanding work, perhaps paid vacation is the key to attracting workers. Maybe that is a long paid off-season or maybe it is a three-day work week when in the thick of things.

Obviously it takes time for people to gain proficiency in any job, so probably no wage will produce immediate competent employees, but there is every reason to believe that on farm labor, as on all other markets, there is a market-clearing wage at which supply and demand would come into balance.

So it simply cannot be to say that Americans won’t do the work, so what the industry must be saying is something different. Two possibilities:

1)   That if we were to transition to an all-U.S.-citizen labor force over the next five years, the wages we would have to pay would so increase the cost of produce that it would depress consumption.

2)   That if we were to transition to an all-U.S.-citizen labor force over the next five years, the wages we would have to pay would so increase the cost of production that production would substantially move overseas and the U.S. industry would be destroyed. So under this scenario, we would have to either impose massive tariffs or accept a dramatic shrinking of U.S. production agriculture.

Either of these claims would be more intellectually coherent than a claim that produce-harvesting labor is somehow exempt from market forces. Very possibly, making an intellectually coherent claim would actually move the political needle by making policy-makers address the real issues. Right now, the claim simply lacks credibility, and so people think the industry is crying wolf to avoid raising wages.

The wild card in the whole conversation is automation. At $10 an hour, the proposition is probably marginal. But if we have to give every harvester a three-bedroom condo with central air, swimming pool and tennis court, full medical and dental, a defined benefit pension plan and a Cadillac, then this area will attract a flood of R&D dollars, and many things not feasible at $10 an hour will quickly become feasible.

On the broader question of immigration policy, it is not at all clear what the position of the produce industry is. Do we favor more legal immigration? Less?

The ambiguity is itself telling. It appears that working in produce harvesting is so far down the list for immigrants that simply increasing legal immigration by 10% or 20%, or any other remotely politically feasible number, would not produce the labor force that the produce industry needs.

It does seem to us that this is more than a little problematic — why should our jobs be so uniquely terrible that even legal immigrants wouldn’t want them?

In any case, this leads us to guest-worker programs. Although it is true that those who advocate under a “social justice” banner may not like these programs because they treat these individuals as “second class” to others who come to the U.S. to work, it is also true that any possible solution to this problem is unsatisfactory.

As we already mentioned, simply increasing the number of legal immigrants will not provide a produce-harvesting work force, and providing other inducements, say a path to citizenship to those who harvest produce for five years, is odd. It singles out harvesting produce as an essential national task — sort of like getting foreign translators in the military — and such a characterization would have little support.

One can argue against discriminating against produce harvesters in a path to citizenship although some would favor the rich or well-educated immigrants. Still,we never know from where greatness will come from in future generations, and we are, after all, the nation that proclaims on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

It is hard, however, to urge discrimination in favor of produce harvesters. Every year, we send newly minted PhDs just trained in our world-class universities back home when many would like to stay. Is there much of a public policy case for favoring produce harvesters over these highly educated workers when it comes to offering a path to citizenship?

Of course, on a strictly financial basis, many would accept the idea that the industry is not sustainable without labor from abroad, and, even more, that social justice is better served by providing work opportunities rather than automating the work. So many would accept a guest-worker program.

The problem, however, is that the federal government has been so manifestly unable or unwilling to enforce existing immigration law that many people of goodwill are unwilling to do anything because they are not convinced that any restrictions on immigration agreed to in the structuring of the guest-worker program will be enforced.

In other words, negotiations are impossible because agreed-upon terms will simply be disregarded. One has to say that people who think this way have a pretty strong basis for their arguments.

In many cities, there are hundreds and thousands of housekeepers who are in the country illegally. They did not crawl over the Mexican border or pay a smuggler to get them in the U.S. They arrived in the country perfectly legally, often on tourist visas, and simply didn’t leave when that visa expired. As far as anyone can tell, the U.S. government does nothing at all to locate these people and deport them.

So what reason is there to believe that someone brought into the country on some kind of guest-worker visa will be, in some way, forced to leave the country when that visa expires? What will happen if they do not? Will there be an immediate “All Points Bulletin” put out and a bounty offered on their heads? This all seems unlikely. Yet if one doesn’t do these things, is it really a guest-worker program at all?

If we want political support, it is also important in proposing a guest-worker program to make sure there is no possibility that taxpayers wind up subsidizing these workers. This means they each need non-deductible health and dental policies while they are in the country, plus an assurance they will have housing and adequate food and clothing. They need insurance whereby if they were to die, the insurance will make sure their bodies can be shipped home for burial. Few proposals for guest-worker programs have addressed these legitimate public policy concerns.

Then there is a big structural matter. Under the Constitution, a child born in the U.S. is an American citizen. So what do we do if a guest worker has a baby while in the U.S.? Throw the parent out while the baby gets to stay?

This Constitutional requirement, by the way, provides a built-in solution to all the existing illegals in the U.S. Impractical visions of deporting 12 million people that are thrown around politically are not necessary.

If we act seriously to end new illegal immigration, the existing problem ultimately solves itself. The children of illegal aliens are American citizens with all the rights and obligations of all U.S. citizens, so gradually the problem will diminish as the new legal generation supersedes the old illegal generation.

It is obviously not a perfect solution, and we have examples of blameless babies born outside the U.S. who were illegal immigrants when they were two-weeks-old. Still, imperfect though it may be, the Constitution, in its genius, does not allow for a permanent cadre of illegals.

The whole issue of immigration is contentious, because it revolves around three different visions of America.

On an economic basis, if we want the largest country, most influential in the world, with the highest GDP, we want a very open immigration policy. On the other hand, if we view our goal as increasing incomes for those people who happen to be U.S. citizens today, one could cogently argue that by restricting immigration, we constrain the supply of manpower and thus increase the value of untrained labor.

We have to add some caveats here, because it can also be argued that a larger, more influential and powerful country can swing more weight in the world and thus secure us better terms in the global market and that this is likely to help all Americans.

On a budgetary basis, many who would be perfectly willing to have more immigrants recoil because, in our social welfare state, many of these immigrants will get free public services. These range from actual relief programs — such as food stamps — to benefiting from public policy choices — such as the law that a hospital must treat a sick person even if that person has no ability to pay.

Although the aggregate statistics are contentious — for many this is an individual matter. No individual should be able to come here and be a drain on the public finance.

On a socio-political basis, many who would otherwise welcome immigrants refuse to do so, not because they object to immigrants, but because they object to the way American culture socializes immigrants. These people, for example, recoil at programs designed to allow English as a second language and want immigrants to be immersed in English right away — considering English to be a kind of glue that allows our democracy to function.

They want to see citizen and citizenship programs in public schools that extoll the virtues of our country, our history and our Constitution. In other words, they believe America is something unique in the world and want to make sure that new immigrants will carry forward this vision.

Overlaying all this is the post-9/11 security concern. Clearly most Americans believe we need to control our borders and know who we are letting in the country because there are people out there who wish us harm. For many, even talking about immigration policy, without first moving to secure the borders and enforce existing law, is a massive distraction from Job One.

And all this is only the substantive issues… add to the matter demogoging politicians on both sides of the aisle who look to play on prejudices and fears and personal self-interest, and it is not very surprising that we haven’t found a solution.

We thank Brad Rickard, Marc Smith and Thomas Maloney for presenting on this topic. It is bound to not only be informative but to stimulate a firecracker of a conversation.

Make sure you are there to hear the conversation by registering for The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.

You can find hotel information here.

Travel discounts here.

Don’t forget to bring your spouse or significant other along; you can register for that program here.

And while you are at the event, consider a regional industry tour. We have six to choose from, and you can do that here.

We also co-locate with a terrific Global Trade Symposium and our “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum; you can register for those events right here.

And there are still opportunities to exhibit or sponsor events. If you would like information let us know here.




Pundit’s Mailbag — Booth Babes And The Disconnect With PMA’s Position On Women’s Careers 

Our piece, PMA’s Fresh Summit Triumph And New Commitment To Educating Women, raised the interest of one of the trade’s more prominent women — in fact, the first woman to chair a national produce trade association, when in 2000 she chaired the International Fresh-cut Produce Association:

I read your coverage of PMA’s events for women leadership in the industry and thought you’d find Dan’l’ Mackey Almy’s commentary, A Progressive Industry, which I copy below of interest. Quite a few women leaders in the industry have been commenting for a few years on the hypocrisy of “honoring” women in produce or advocating for “women” leadership, then allowing the exhibition floor to look like the Las Vegas strip.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m no prude or hard-core feminist, but I think we need to walk the walk when it comes to advancing women… in ANY industry. I’d like to see an exhibitor policy developed where booth personnel (i.e., the booth babes) are required to dress professionally. After all, do these exhibitors realize how many women BUYERS are out there in the industry today? Surely they can’t be impressed with such marketing strategies.

Jan DeLyser is the new PMA ChairWOMAN… maybe she can make it happen! Go Jan! 

—Lorri Koster
Chairman/CEO
Mann Packing Co.
Salinas, California

P.S. I’m a member of the Network of Executive Women and find their events to be beneficial, but they are attended by both women and men. Hope PMA’s will shape up in the same fashion

...................................

 A Progressive Industry
By Dan’l Mackey Almy

I haven’t missed a Fresh Summit in 17 years. Hold please while I go apply some eye cream. No, but seriously, I feel so fortunate to have witnessed the evolution of our industry and the progressions we have made over that long period of time.

On The Core, we often talk about telling your stories and the importance of refreshing, improving, and positive change. And our approach to Fresh Summit each year is characterized by anticipation of experiencing new and exciting examples of all of these.

We have and will continue to talk, write and gush about shining examples of progressions such as Career Pathways and The Women’s Fresh Perspectives Event. PMA and the PMA Foundation are championing these programs, with the support of members, to improve our industry across all demographics.

For six years, Fresh Perspectives events have contributed to an atmosphere of goodwill and growth. The impact the speakers have made, along with the many relationships that have been fostered at these events, is truly dynamic. Even after Condoleezza Rice spoke at the Year-Three event and we asked “how can that be topped?” — the momentum has far from waned.

This year, I sat at breakfast with a student from Texas A&M University, Deanna Bosse, for whom I had the honor of being a Career Ambassador. That morning and throughout the weekend, I was able to share with her and answer questions about our industry and being a woman in fresh produce. And, from the 800+ participants at the PMA Foundation 5k to the concentrated Future Focused Friday day of education, the best of our industry was on display for Deanna and the other Pack Students.

However… There was a stark contrast between these positive examples and the blatant, less dressed “booth babes” and risqué messaging displayed on the show floor. Sure, I acknowledge that sex sells, but I must ask, is this the best way to communicate the value of your brand, products and services?

Do these gimmicks diminish the relevancy of value-based, clever marketing that is also abundant at Fresh Summit?

Let’s set aside the debate on the overexposed and underdressed women touting their headshots and professions (some of which happen to be unrelated to fresh produce) and instead talk about what we are selling. We are already selling the sexiest products and complimentary services on the planet. So for companies who resort to this, it begs the question “how desperate are you?”

PMA, UFPA and other organizations provide industry members with platforms for doing business, and it’s all of our responsibility to optimize these events to achieve that very goal — good business increases consumption. There’s an old produce saying that “one bad apple spoils the bunch.” And while we have many, many more good apples amongst us, it feels a bit like the progress I’ve seen over 17 years stutters and stalls at times.

If we are going to embrace the #HelloFuture mindset encouraged at this past Fresh Summit, then we must be mindful of old school ways that can and will limit us as we move forward. What do you think?

Many thanks to Dan’l for allowing us to reprint the piece she ran in her blog, titled The Core, which we have often quoted in pieces such as these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Profitable Participation

‘Fresh For Ellen’ Raises A Question: How Should We Define Success?

How Will Success Be Measured For Fresh For Ellen Social Media Campaign?

DMA’s Philanthropic Anniversary Celebration

Plea For Ellen DeGeneres To Consider Produce In Her Sugar-Free Diet

Perishable Thoughts — Hope Obama Helps Country ‘Arise’

Dan’ls team at DMA Solutions also was kind enough to work with us in the past on the New York Produce Show and Conference, and we announced that arrangement here.

We’ve been dealing with this issue a long time. We first wrote about it over 20 years ago when we had a cover story in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, titled Women in the Produce Industry, but in that same issue, there was a risqué ad from Lisenbey, Inc. We received many letters, including one from, yes, Lorri Koster (née Nucci).

We defended our decision to run the risqué ad in our response to the letters, but, years later, in a Pundit piece, titled Pundit’s Mailbag — Sexism in the Produce Industry, which was prompted by a letter regarding women in trade shows, we walked back on that approach. Basically, we started out defending free expression and moved to a position of publisher responsibility.

Over the years, we have lost money, a fair amount of money, because we rejected ads that played too overtly on sex.

We are all for professionalism but think making a set policy is difficult. If the Tahiti Produce Federation wants to have native dancers showing the heritage of the country, it is difficult to think one should limit that. If you don’t limit that, you start making very subjective judgments about what is appropriate and what is not.

We suppose there is always some limit. We seem to recall some tofu company being shut down at a show when the skimpy bikinis on its booth babes just were causing too much outrage.

Of course, the fact that a policy is hard to make doesn’t mean that companies are doing themselves any favor by pushing the limit.

One issue, as Lorri’s letter points out, is there many female buyers in the trade and it seems that many won’t like this approach.

But we would go further and say that, overall, although such an attraction may boost booth traffic for the moment, it is unlikely to make buyers — male or female — hold a vendor in higher esteem.

It may be fun for a moment, but when the buyer walks away, what is he going to really remember about the company? Maybe that its representatives had nothing to say about food safety or what they could do to help the retailer sell more effectively.

We had lunch recently with a highly accomplished and well-respected gentleman in the industry. He told us that in the very early years of his career, he used to take clients out to strip clubs. While still in his twenties, he decided that this wasn’t the way he wanted to be perceived and he stopped.

It is many millions later, and this gentleman has outperformed almost his whole peer group.

To us the initiative to stop the booth babes should come from three sources: First, within the company itself, the female employees are well capable of expressing dissatisfaction. Second, the buying community, both females and guys who feel it is disrespectful of women or an attempt to manipulate the guys to make them make decisions in a non-business manner. These folks can speak out with words or actions. Third, and most important, the executives who are pushing this approach should refocus on their long term reputational interests and not what will cause a wow at a two-day convention.

Many thanks to Lorri Koster and Dan’l Mackey Almy for helping us think through this pertinent issue.

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