The following article from The Packer's “A Century of Produce,” was published in 1993.
As The Packer prepares to publish our 125th-anniversary edition later this year, we are posting some of the writing from previous anniversary publications.
In this article, Larry Waterfield shares the first 100 years of The Packer's history.
By Larry Waterfield
The Packer in 1993 has done something few publications or businesses achieve over a hundred years -- it has survived. It not only survived while many fell, it continues to thrive. In 1993, The Packer stood poised to begin a second century of covering the produce industry, not only in North America but across the world.
Packer writers, editors, field representatives and correspondents can be found from Sacramento, Calif., to Santiago, Chile, from British Columbia to Colombia in South America, from Holland, Mich., to Holland in Europe. In the “globalized” U.S. produce industry, The Packer is the dominant publication with almost 70 percent market share and a readership that covers 90 percent of the industry’s volume.
Over the past century the produce industry has undergone sweeping changes. So has The Packer. But some things at The Packer have not changed. The Packer name and the newspaper broadsheet format have not changed. The Packer founder, Isaac N. Barrick, envisioned a national newspaper covering a wide range of commodities, including fruits and vegetables. That remains unchanged. He also wanted a paper that reported crops, prices and markets, and that shined a light on crooked or shady business dealings in the produce trade. That remains the same.
Almost everything else changed. The Packer adopted computers and sophisticated graphics, color and photography. The writing style changed as has the content. There is more emphasis on marketing and retailing, international trade, government regulation and laws. There is more analysis, more in-depth special reports. The Packer has been redesigned.
Over the years, The Packer went from being a farm publication to a trade newspaper with crop reports and news notes to being a business publication focusing on all aspects of fruit and vegetable marketing.
Those changes reflect the changes in the produce industry. When The Packer published its first issue in February 1893 in Kansas City, Mo., there was no produce industry as it is known today. There were meat and grains and then there was everything else: fruits, vegetables, honey, rabbits, chickens, eggs, butter and dozens of other farm commodities. The earliest issues of The Packer focused on meat packing. But Barrick quickly determined that a newspaper for the highly concentrated meat packing industry would not be profitable.
In short order he broadened the coverage to include “farm produce,” including fruits and vegetables, nuts, eggs, butter, poultry, crates, barrels and packing materials. The Packer would become the “eyes and ears” of sellers of these commodities.
Barrick saw there was a need -- and a niche -- for this kind of publication. The late 19th century was a period of freewheeling business dealing; the age of trust busting, the robber barons and business laissez faire. Let both buyer and seller beware.
There was no Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, no Red Book or Blue Book, and credit information was hard to obtain. The perishable nature of the products meant the seller was at the mercy of the buyer. Slick con artists and unscrupulous dealers preyed on farmer sellers. And not all farmers were honest either. Some simply tried to get away with whatever the market would bear.
The early Packer contained horror stories about sellers who shipped their commodities to buyers, and when they were not paid hopped a train to find the buyer and collect. Sometimes “collections” were carried out with fist fights. Buyer and seller might “duke it out” in this Jack Dempsey School of Bill Collecting. Sellers used tricks of their own. One was the “stovepipe” ruse.
Sellers would place a stovepipe in the center of a barrel or container of produce, then fill the pipe with inferior produce and remove it, leaving the center of the container filled with bad merchandise.
Some called Barrick’s idea for a publication serving this volatile trade “a stroke of genius.” But Barrick needed more than an idea -- he needed money and people. He used his contacts with the Armour Meat Packing Co. to get both. This Armour connection would play a key role in the history of The Packer.
Barrick died in 1903 of a heart attack. The publication was taken over by George A. Gurley, former advertising manager at Armour. For 61 years, Gurley and his son, George H. Gurley, ran The Packer. The Gurleys, along with Roy Fellhauer who joined the paper in 1911 and became general manager and editor, made the publication grow and thrive.
Soon there were Packer representatives in 15 cities. In the 1920s, The Packer was frequently sued for libel because of its policy of reporting on crooks and shady dealers. The Packer crusaded against entrepreneurs who persuaded growers to join fraudulent “marketing cooperatives.” One such wheeler-dealer, Aaron Sapiro, sued The Packer for $100,000. That suit was dismissed in 1927. In most cases, The Packer won libel suits against it because its allegations of crooked dealing proved to be true.
In 1930, The Packer gave strong backing to Congressional passage of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, the new law setting fair trading rules for fruits and vegetables.
In 1939, George A. Gurley died and his son, George H. Gurley, took over the company. At one point in the 1940s and 1950s The Packer was partly owned by some of the employees.
The year 1964 was a turning point for The Packer. That year Gurley sold the small Packer Publishing Co. to the larger family-owned Vance Publishing Corp. of Chicago, publishers of trade and business magazines.
Jim Connell, former Packer sales manager, took over running The Packer. Connell, with Vance’s backing, modernized the printing of the paper, added more color and new sections and features. The Packer moved to new offices.
Since the Vance purchase, The Packer has seen its greatest growth. Connell aggressively took The Packer in new directions, creating new spinoff publications, such as The Grower magazine. Other spinoff publications reach flower and plant marketers and produce merchandisers.
By 1980, under the direction of publisher Bill Coon and editor Paul Campbell, The Packer phased out its traditional “field man” system and instituted a clear split between news and editorial functions and business functions. A new home office and field editors were added. Coverage in Washington, D. C., was expanded, starting in 1978.
In the past decade, The Packer has continued to expand its coverage with more emphasis on news analysis, government regulation, special reports, investigative articles on pricing practices, paying practices and bankruptcies. There are more stories on international trade and on food safety and pesticide issues.
In 1984 the company created Pronet, envisioned as a sort of computerized on-line Packer with electronic publishing capabilities.
On the technical side, The Packer has computerized many operations, added more color, hired graphic artists and enhanced its graphics and photography.
In 1991, under the direction of Editor Bill O’Neill and Managing Editor Gordon Billingsley, The Packer was redesigned to make it more compartmentalized and “reader friendly.”
And at the century mark, The Packer stood ready to begin a sequel: Century II.