When I set out a few weeks ago for our Fresh Impact tour to visit with industry members in six states and one Canadian province, I admit to a little anxiety about it all.
Planning to drive more than 2,000 miles, tour dozens of facilities, host five town hall events, and meet with folks from breakfast through dinner every day was a little daunting.
But I didn’t appreciate how I would draw more energy from every individual along the way than I would need.
Meeting all day, every day, for two weeks with real people often behind the scenes in our industry was unlike anything I’ve experienced in my 18 years as CEO of United Fresh.
I’ve been to hundreds of produce facilities in those years, and met with thousands of industry leaders around the world.
But it was rejuvenating to travel the backroads, see the passion of our industry in places that don’t often make The Packer’s front page, and, once again, be reminded that it’s a true calling for the people who bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the world.
I learned all over again how hard this work is. Vegetable growers in western New York said how too much early rain had hurt their season, while others in New Jersey lamented the July heat that had burned crops and reduced yields.
We talked about the brown marmorated stink bug (yes, really!) and how state and federal researchers are frantically searching for crop protection tools to combat this invasive pest.
Apple growers in Pennsylvania are holding their breath for the harvest hoping last year’s stink bug invasion doesn’t come again.
But a universal concern was at the top of everyone’s list — the need for a reliable and legal agricultural work force. If we don’t have the workers to harvest and pack crops, nothing else much matters.
In a sense, this is what my tour was all about — connecting with our members in the field to bring their concerns back to political leaders in Washington, D.C., to demand a solution.
Thus far, government has turned its back on produce farmers who desperately need legal workers, instead scoring political points with polarizing rhetoric and a broken H-2A guest worker program that punishes growers who participate instead of helping them.
I saw hardworking people in fields and packinghouses across all six states, who only want a chance to support their families like you and me. I saw farmers who do all the right things to check identification documents, and operate legally within laws that are often at odds.
And I saw growing shortages of labor at every stop.
Blueberries in New Jersey diverted to lower-value processing because no one could pick them.
Sweet corn coming off too slowly and backing up orders because of shortages of 10% to 20% in harvest crews.
Third- and fourth-generation growers telling me they weren’t sure they would continue in the business unless something changes drastically with the labor situation.
And then I went to Leamington, Ontario, where a guest worker program has brought legal and reliable workers from other countries to the fields for decades, balancing employment needs of Canadian citizens, treating the guest workers with respect and fairness, and seeing them return to their home countries at the end of each season.
More than 5,000 foreign workers come into the small town of Leamington each season. It is time for the U.S. Congress to meet its responsibility, not just to our industry, but to all Americans who consume the foods we grow.
Without a viable guest worker program, we cannot continue to bring the abundant bounty of fresh produce to your table.
The bright side
But my trip was not all doom and gloom — far from it.
If our industry let the hurdles dictate our business, we’d still be at the starting line, not running the race.
Even with our challenges, optimism was everywhere along the way.
New cold storages and packinghouses going up in apple country. Expansion of major fresh-cut facilities and distribution warehouses.
Allied suppliers investing in R&D and the tools to grow a next generation of convenience produce items.
Quick-service restaurant menus featuring new salads and produce items that can compete with white-tablecloth.
Retail formats that take produce merchandising to a new level.
Excitement about school districts that are finally beginning to grow into major produce customers without depending on lower quality and price.
It’s been said that a farmer is the eternal optimist every time he plants a seed. Surely that also applies to all of our industry, as we apply our vision, capital, brains and brawn to new products, facilities and programs to grow the fresh produce business.
This trip took me through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Ontario, Canada.
It was great to see many farms and facilities for the first time, but the real value of this trip was visiting up close and personal with more than 200 members of our industry.
And, past experience tells me I didn’t find much different here than I would have in California or Florida, Mexico or Chile, Spain or Australia.
Our industry has a greater purpose, and our people have a calling. We work hard, we overcome whatever obstacles come our way, and we’re optimistic, always looking to the future.
This week I head to Asia Fruit Logistica in Hong Kong to give a speech on global harmonization of produce standards.
That’s a long way from two weeks in Middle America.
But I can’t wait to meet some new members of our global produce industry, and share the values that make our industry unique, regardless of geography.
Thanks to the hundreds of members and friends who hosted the United Fresh team along the way, and to Miriam Miller, John Toner and Jeff Oberman for helping plan and participate in the tour.
Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
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