Century of Produce: Anything is Possible in Produce’s Future


Anything is Possible in Produce’s Future

By Mike Glynn

“While I take inspiration from the past, like most Americans I live for the future,” former president Ronald Reagan once said. And so, it seems reasonable that, after an exhaustive study of 100 years of produce, we look in the other direction and squint at the industry’s horizon.

Unfortunately, prognosticating is a practice fraught with failures. Remember the high expectations for Metrication, Unitization and Modularization, better known as Project MUM? Remember growers’ forecasts of doom over immigration reform laws?

Those weren’t the only predictions to miss their targets. Time magazine noted Admiral William Leahy advised President Harry Truman that “the atom bomb is the biggest fool thing we have ever done … the bomb will never go off.” And two years before the Kitty Hawk sputtered into a North Carolina sky, Wilbur Wright told his brother that man wouldn’t fly for 50 years.

For produce the questions beckon: What technological wonders await? What regulatory hurdles loom? And what truly will be the next “kiwi fruit”?

If anything is probable about produce’s future, it is that many of the ordeals of yesterday and today will emerge again. In 1967, marketing researchers at Sunkist Growers Inc. offered an analysis of contemporary produce marketing conditions.

Some of the troubles the researchers lamented: Grower-shippers were too production-oriented, retailers were “bombarded” with new products, consumers were edgy about pesticide residues, and retail buying power was overwhelming a fragmented supply base.

Even so, expect some big things for produce in the not-too-distant future. The industry’s free thinkers point to technology as the spark plug for much of it. Already, communication between companies’ computer systems, known as Electronic Data Interchange, allows buyers and sellers to electronically exchange purchase orders, manifests, payments and scores of other documents previously handled by fax or (gasp) the mail.

Some computer experts believe the next step for produce will be buyers monitoring their suppliers’ inventories and reserving orders directly through computers. Eventually, sellers may designate a certain portion of their daily or weekly harvests for “public” inventory, enabling any buyer enrolled in the system to scout and lock in orders from the electronic supply pool.

Other advances offer equally captivating scenarios. Engineering experts said improvements in digital-signal processing chips will allow on-the-ground bird dogs to tote video cameras to loading docks to film product for sale. Within minutes they’ll download the visuals through a computer and through the phone lines for buyers, thousands of miles away, to view and make their purchase choices.

There are plenty of other frontiers. Consumers, increasingly demanding convenience, are pushing suppliers to develop preparation-less produce. More marketers are turning their branding efforts from the trade to consumers. The big sellers get bigger to service needs of big buyers. Both of them want to reduce costs of distribution, communication and other parts of the system. Then there’s the wonders of biotechnology, with its promise of improved flavor, shelf life and disease-resistance for produce. Bio-engineered tomatoes were expected to appear on supermarket shelves by the fall of ’93. Irradiated strawberries already were there by the early ’90s. The practice of humidity-managed atmospheres, already taking hold in transportation containers, is expected to be embraced by retailers, some of whom are using interactive videos to train produce clerks.

Also en route are mobile communication systems that use satellite technology to locate loads on the road. For train transportation, produce companies are turning to more double-stacked containers.

In the field, Florida growers are improving their labor accounting through use of computer-compatible worker identification cards. Drip irrigation and chemical applications among many growers are managed by their computers.

Meantime, demographic experts say though the U.S. population will plateau soon after the turn of the century, the number of older consumers will rise. That trend bodes well for consumption as older Americans tend to purchase more produce than those who are younger.

Indeed, the promise that awaits growers and salespeople, brokers and buyers, seems cause for inspiration. Steve Kenfield, chief operating officer for Corrin Produce Sales Inc., a grower-shipper in Reedley, Calif., said in 1993 that he thinks innovation has unfolded more rapidly in the past five years than any other time.

Said Kenfield, “I have much more optimism, more excitement for the future.”

By The Packer