In addition to talking trends and giving a thorough overview of business conditions affecting his audience, PMA President Bryan Silbermann always brings up a couple of thought-provoking ideas during his annual State of the Industry addresses. This year, something that stood out for me was a comment he made about a book published in 1982. Megatrends, by John Naisbitt.
“Naisbitt described how, in a “high tech” world increasingly driven by technology, people would be drawn more and more to “high touch” products and services,” Silbermann said. “Look around at so many signs of that – and remember that we, in the fresh fruit and veg as well as floral business, are surely as “high touch” as one can get. Because we offer the connection to nature, to the fruits of the land, to a simpler time, to a sustenance far closer to a farm than to a factory.”
I’ve never read Naisbitt, but I agree with what Silbermann is getting at. People are social creatures, and they’ll always crave contact with other people. And, it doesn’t take much thinking to find a few ways that technology has really struck out in that regard. Is there anyone who really enjoys navigating their way through a bunch of computerized phone trees when they call their cable company or their bank? As much as it has improved productivity and profits, technology can be very dehumanizing.
But I don’t think the produce industry is off the hook here, simply because they grow unprocessed food. Fruits and vegetables themselves aren’t “high touch.” Farmer’s Markets becoming more popular because meeting and talking with a farmer in person is a “high touch” experience. It’s person to person. A generic tomato purchased in a supermarket doesn’t have that personality.
Fortunately for the produce industry, I think that part of the answer to this issue is something that Silbermann and PMA have been harping on for at least two years. More and more people do want to know a story behind their food. And it’s not that they always need a story about a third generation family tilling the land and remaining independent. Most people in the U.S. do not understand how their food gets from the farm to their supermarket. A growing number of them are suspicious about the process, and national foodborne illness outbreaks and contamination scares, whether they've been caused by produce, meat, seafood or pet food, have not helped this situation, to say the least. Most of these people just want more transparency.