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.
Here, Barney McClure shares his perspective on the historical successes of produce promotion.
A Song of Sales
By Barney McClure
About 100 years ago, a small group of California farmers who had been lured to the promised land by early Southern California real estate promoters decided to create a market for a virtually unknown fruit--the fresh-picked, California-grown orange.
This grower group had organized a marketing cooperative and hired what was then the leading New York advertising agency--Lord & Thomas--to sell wooden boxes of Sunkist-brand oranges directly to consumers in the Midwest, about as far as they thought they could afford to ship oranges in those days. The program was successful, and that started the produce industry on the road to promotion.
Although I was not around at the start of all this action, my great grandfather planted (and “marketed”) the first peaches grown in California (during Gold Rush days). I grew up in the Santa Clara Valley during the Great Depression, earning money every summer picking prunes and cutting apricots, so it was inevitable that I had an early and life-long interest in fresh fruit marketing.
My great grandfather, a successful peach orchardist in Illinois and father of nine sons and one daughter, decided to come west by Conestoga wagon to the Mother Lode country of California. The year was 1850, and his plan was to invest in mining equipment. He sold the farm, took his older sons with him, left the younger children (including my then 3-year-old grandfather) at home with his wife, made the trip to California without incident and invested everything in the mining equipment--at which point the state of California outlawed placer mining. My great grandfather regrouped, immediately sent back to Illinois for peach tree stock that could be grown in the foothills of California (the town was called “Yankee Jim’s” after its founding father), built a home on the American River and soon sent for the rest of the family.
My grandfather was a peach salesman after he and the rest of the family arrived. At the age of about 10, he would pack the morning’s pick of peaches in large burro-carried “saddlebags” and go through the mining camps along the river selling peaches for $1 each -- a price that probably never has been topped since.
It seems almost inevitable that my first fresh fruit account as a partner in a small San Francisco-based agency called Evans, McClure & Associates would be the California Peach Advisory Board, located in Fresno at the time.
Grape vineyards already had been established in the state of California but strictly for wine production, so my great-grandfather’s peach orchard may have produced the first fruit grown in California for commercial purposes.
With the success of the Sunkist program, other fruit and nut grower cooperatives also started to advertise their products to Eastern consumers. The only way to refrigerate fresh produce was by covering railcars of fruit with crushed ice, and that was an idea in its infancy, so the next wave of promoters were dried fruit and nut co-ops.
The leading advertising vehicle of the 1920s, the Saturday Evening Post, carried heavy schedules for California products such as Sunmaid Raisins, Sunsweet Prunes, Blue Diamond Almonds and Diamond Walnuts. In fact, these early cooperative advertisers were among the largest of the national advertisers with budgets approaching $1 million annually at a time when a million dollars was a lot more than today’s pocket change.
The early promotion programs in the first third of this century were sponsored by brand marketers -- mostly farmer-owned cooperative organizations, although the biggest success story was the introduction of Chiquita bananas by United Fruit Co. Not only was the Chiquita campaign concentrated in a new advertising medium, radio, but the entertaining and educational singing commercials were among the first ever put on the air. The Carmen Miranda spots in the late ’30s and through the ’40s literally created an industry from a specialty crop. The Chiquita brand so dominated the banana category that United Fruit became the first (and to my knowledge only) fresh produce company to be “anti-trusted” by the federal government. The break-up of the “banana monopoly” led to the entry of both Dole and Del Monte (previously strictly canned fruit marketers) to get into the fresh fruit business in a major way.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, fresh fruit and vegetable promotion programs changed direction, although the costs were still borne by farm groups. In the early ’30s, when prices for farm products hit rock bottom (former stock brokers were retailing apples on street corners for 5 cents each, for example), federal marketing order legislation was passed permitting identifiable agricultural commodities to impose size, grade and maturity standards on the fruit they produced as a way of creating a more orderly market for their products. No other marketing activities (such as advertising or funding the research costs of developing new product varieties) was permitted, so its application was limited.
However, the need for marketing support was obvious and the co-ops were tired of carrying the ball for entire industries. In 1938, three Western states (California, Washington and Idaho) passed enabling legislation permitting growers of a commodity within their state borders to vote a tax upon themselves to develop funding for advertising and other marketing support activities.
This seems like a good place for another personal recollection: In the 1920s and 1930s, a new cooperative decided the time had come to launch another tropical fruit that had been grown for centuries south of the border and now was being planted commercially in California: Its pebbly green skin led to it being called the “alligator pear,” and it soon had become a popular salad fruit in California. It was promoted by the newly formed Calavo growers co-op and soon the brand name Calavo replaced the alligator fruit designation. The national promotion by Calavo was so successful that several other grower groups and individual growers initiated their own marketing programs. Calavo soon tired of building a market for the product of an entire industry, and that company headed the formation of the California Avocado Advisory Board.
My own recollection of avocados as a small boy was that I ate them but didn’t particularly like the squishy mouth feel. However, that wonderful name, alligator pear, made them a must eat for a 9- or 10-year-old!Incidentally, my mother was a 5 a Day advocate in the 1920s, so salads and fruits and vegetables were served at every meal and were the family’s between-meal snacks. Now, in the early 1990s, I’m still going strong well past the traditional retirement age of 70. I owe that fact in large part to Mom’s 5 a Day policy, which was in effect more than 60 years before it was called by that name by the National Cancer Institute.
Back to 1938: The almost immediate success stories that followed the formation of the marketing order program in the West were those by the Washington state apple industry operating as a commission, and the Idaho potato industry, also functioning as a commission that had been set up by special Idaho legislation.
Idaho potato growers were inspired to go into an industry-sponsored marketing program because they were almost totally dependent on the Chicago market for the sale of their Russet Burbanks (the finest potatoes grown anywhere, they felt). They were frequently at the mercy of supply and demand fluctuations and of some unscrupulous brokers and wholesale repackers who took advantage of the situation in that market.
The objective was clear: to establish the superiority of their product in the minds of both consumers and the trade--throughout the United States. The potato commission employed two agencies to help them do that: the Botsford office in Portland to plan and execute consumer advertising and the Cline agency in Boise to handle the merchandising, public relations and industry relations programs. Even in 1938, this three-part approach to building marketing support programs was an established format: advertising, (almost exclusively in the high circulation women’s magazines Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes & Gardens and others that dominated the media selection for food products); merchandising and public relations made up the “complete” program. (We used to present this concept to farm groups as the “three-legged milking stool” of agricultural commodity promotion programs.)
When I merged my small company into the Botsford organization in 1962, the Idaho program was the model for excellent industry results. Even on the East Coast (in the middle of Maine potato territory), Idaho potato shippers got $1-2 premium prices per cwt., after shipping costs were added to the price. In fact, by 1963, when I took over management of the business, the major problem of the Idaho industry was that twice as many Idaho potatoes were being sold as were being grown! It seems that bag companies saw a great opportunity to increase their sales volume by selling Idaho bags to russet potato growers in other producing states that wanted to cash in on the Idaho name. Special legislation authorizing the “franchising” of bag producers was passed by the Idaho legislature, and that put a stop to that illegal practice.
World War II years stopped all marketing expenditures as shortages and price ceilings affected the produce industry as it did all other aspects of our economy. It was about five years after the war before the produce marketing support program started up again, and this led to the tremendous growth in importance and prestige of the marketing order programs, as well as the reinstatement of the brand programs by Chiquita, Sunkist and others. California agricultural groups had been slow to get into the state programs before the war (in that many of them had already organized under the federal program), and the first marketing orders initiated after the war were on processed fruits and vegetables. Cling peaches, raisins, prunes and olives were in business with successful programs by 1950.
Perhaps the biggest stimulus to the fresh promotion was the feeling throughout the food industry that the “fresher than fresh” frozen products would take over and fresh produce virtually would disappear from retail supermarket shelves. Not only did fresh fruit and vegetable marketing orders start up for nearly two dozen commodities in California alone, but the success of the Idaho potato and Washington apple programs led every producing state of those basic commodities to initiate marketing support campaigns of their own.
One of the techniques the retail produce people initiated at this time to stay in business was “pre-packaging” of produce, whether the produce item was enhanced by the package or not. This led to the formation of the Produce Packaging Association, which, of course, became known as the Produce Marketing Association, one of America’s most successful and important trade organizations.
Another bit of nostalgia comes to mind here: At the peak of the pre-packaging, pre-wrap era (in the early 1960s), I made a store check trip to the Midwest. In visiting a large Red Owl supermarket in Minneapolis, I was almost blinded by the reflected light that bounced off every single item in the produce department. Everything, even whole watermelons, were entirely wrapped, overwrapped or packaged in plastic. It was quite a sight!
However, by the end of the 1950s, it was obvious that the presumed advantages of frozen over fresh simply were not practical for most items: The cost of storage, transportation and the cost of the retail equipment needed was high; the cost of packaging was at least as great as the theoretical savings occasioned by not having to ship skins, pits, tops, etc., along with the edible portions of fresh fruits and vegetables; and the fact was the freezing process did not protect the “fresh” flavor and texture of most produce items.
So the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s became the “hey days” of marketing order programs across the country. At least a dozen states had legislation in place permitting the organization of marketing order programs, and the federal enabling legislation of the 1930s was amended to permit advertising and other marketing tactics to be included in federal programs. In addition, several commodities (potatoes among the first) were able to get special legislation passed to set up national programs in support of fresh produce products wherever they are grown, providing a majority of the industry voted in favor of such programs.
Time out for another memorable incident in my business life. With 35 years experience helping to market potatoes grown in Idaho, Botsford went all out to get the National Potato Board business. As manager of the Botsford “commodity division,” I had a crew of advertising and public relations people set up to call on the 21 administrative committee members (who would make the agency selection decision) on their farms to demonstrate our interest and capabilities. My man making calls out of the New York office was assigned to call on one grower in the Northeast who, it turned out, was in the hospital after having suffered a serious heart attack. However, it seemed that he was eager to break the hospital monotony and agreed to meet with our man in his hospital room. I’ll never forget the report he phoned in after the meeting: “I had a good meeting with the board member, and he seems to be sold on us as an agency. Incidentally, I was very careful not to step on his oxygen tube.”