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Imagine sitting down with your quill and inkwell that many years ago and drafting the first stories for The Packer. The story about the upcoming crop would be easy and that interview with the grower/shipper hasn’t changed much over the years:

“We’ve had ideal growing conditions, we are starting a few days earlier than last year, with excellent size crop and outstanding flavor. We have some new varieties we are trying and we have made significant advances to our packing (higher grade of burlap, using brass nails in our wooden boxes?) There were some weather problems during the growing season and our competitors yields will be down, but ours will be up. We are worried about our supply of water and labor is going to be very tight.” 

But the retail/wholesale/foodservice segments of the business were totally fragmented. There was no such thing as a chain store, nearly all farms were family owned with up to three generations involved. Most farms were small truck farms, growing a variety of products seasonally and selling their crops within a very tight distribution area. How in the world do you gather information and make it relevant to such a group of disjointed, disconnected readers? 

But I digress, I was asked what changes I would foresee in our industry in the next twenty five years. This is fairly simple, because I have nothing to lose and there is no way my credibility and accuracy will be any worse in 2044 than it is today. The editor of that first edition would never project things like World War I, or that enhancements to transportation and refrigeration would enable products to be shipped to all forty five states. How about business being conducted across the country by the telephone? The auction system beginning to give way to firm FOB pricing? Or that the government would see the need for involvement and that the PACA would become a necessity? Anyone suggesting any of those changes one hundred and twenty years ago might have been burned as a witch. As fast as things are changing and evolving today, nothing anyone predicts can be considered impossible or nonsensical. With that in mind, I feel like we will see continued improvements to what is already happening and I can see the following.

  • More and more crops will be grown indoors. With changing weather patterns and more frequent crop losses, science will make indoor farming cheaper and more realistic. Fueling this change will be improvements in growing technology coupled with fuel and lighting improvements. Many of these massive indoor farms will be in urban areas - land will become plentiful with decaying downtowns and vacant industrial parks. Access to water, which has been repurposed from its initial use, and close proximity to transportation and distribution facilities will save handling and freight costs. In these grow houses, robotics will be able to handle everything from planting and growing to harvesting and packing. Vans without drivers will be dispatched, loaded and sent to receivers in order make just-in-time deliveries. The cold chain will never be broken because deliveries will be on smaller electric units carrying compatible products. Warehouses will just be consolidation and cross docks for orders which have been submitted a week in advance and paid for. 
  • On the consumption side, convenience will continue to be the driver. Fully cooked meals will be delivered to homes across the country and take and go sections in the stores will be huge. Fresh will continue to grow and people will look at the produce departments as the only place in the store where everything is good for you. Educating consumers will be key and meal preparation, on those nights when take away is not eaten, will be social and shared events for the family and for guests.
  • Community gardens and backyards farms will explode and be found everywhere. With more free time and more concern about healthy eating, everyone will want to be a farmer and raise their own food. There will be huge opportunities is assisting people wanting to do this by supplying information and materials. This will become a section in the produce department.
  • Finally, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D North California) will continue to apply pressure to President Barron Trump to release his father’s income tax results from 2015.

Mike Aiton has retired after a career of nearly 40 years as both a retail produce director and as a vice president on the grower/shipper side. E-mail him at [email protected]