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Fresh Summit draws record attendance

by Tim Linden | October 07, 2009
ANAHEIM, CA -- The Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition, held here Oct. 2-5, attracted a record crowd of 19,070 attendees, and the organization announced that PMA Australia-New Zealand officially began operations Oct. 1.

Bryan Silbermann, president and chief executive officer of the association, introduced the affiliate's board of directors during his annual State of the Industry address Saturday, Oct. 3. He said that the launching of the affiliated organization is in keeping with the association's goal of bringing more events and meetings closer to its membership.

In the past year, PMA has increased its presence on a local level by hosting more regional events. This effort will continue in 2010 with a number of events scheduled at U.S. and foreign locations.

The launching of PMA Australia-New Zealand is a bit different, as that will be a separate organization in its own right being funded by the contributions of more than a dozen firms that have each pledged $10,000 per year for the next three years. That organization grew out of PMA's Australia-New Zealand Country Council, which has existed for the past three years.

In welcoming the affiliate and its new board, Mr. Silbermann said, "There is a clear two-way value proposition because so much can be learned from each other. Especially in our global community, the future of trade will rely as much on the fruit of the mind as on the fruit of the land -- this industry is increasingly about what you know, rather than what you grow."

That statement was reflective of the PMA executive's address as he stressed the current changing world and how it will affect the fresh produce business. He noted the difficult times of the past year but opined that better times lie ahead.

"The economy does appear to be rebooting," he said.

However, while Mr. Silbermann does see an improving economy, he believes a return to the "good old days" will never happen as a "brave new world" lies ahead. "In 15 years, China could be the largest economy and the biggest military power."

Although that may seem dramatic, Mr. Silbermann said that the world's most populated country would also become a net importer of food, including fruits and vegetables.

Turning his attention to some of the other factors that will influence worldwide fruit and vegetable production, he first looked at water. Farmers, he said, use 70 percent of the water in the world, and the demand for that water from non-farm constituents is growing. He said that agriculture will have to continue to learn to produce more food with less water, as that is the inevitable path that the world is currently following. Water, he suggested, will become a commodity that has to be treated like petroleum when it comes to its use and scarcity.

Mr. Silbermann also said that the changing consumer will play a very significant role in the changing world of agriculture. While the current recession may be temporary, he said that it has created some changes in consumers that will likely be permanent.

In the first place, Mr. Silbermann predicted that consumers will continue to be very value-conscious as they move forward.

Some other consumer trends include the aging of the population as well as the need to eat healthier. Those two trends go hand in hand, and Mr. Silbermann said that the consumer of the future will continue to look for locally grown food that has a healthy connotation. He said that local farmers have a "health halo," which seems to attract people, especially in difficult economic times.

He added that ethical consumerism and social activism, as it relates to food, are also here to stay. Consumers want to know how the food was made, where it was grown and if the company is good to its workers, he said. Today, consumers want to be connected to the food they eat, which is one reason why sales of home garden seed increased 40 percent this past year.

Mr. Silbermann quipped that if he were a retailer, he would make space in the produce department for the products that the home gardener is looking for, and "I'd also try to make the produce I sell match that taste."

He said that consumers are looking for what he called "high touch," which is a connection to what they eat. Consumers want to see the "face behind the food, the story behind the sustenance, the narrative behind the necessity." It is why, he believes, private-label merchandise has grown tremendously in the past couple of years, since the store brand builds on the confidence that the store itself has developed. It gives the consumer the confidence they are looking for in the food supply.

Mr. Silbermann concluded his remarks by discussing health care reform as it relates to the produce industry. He opined that the current system is broken and that fixing it gives the fruit and vegetable industry the opportunity to preach the message of prevention. He said that increased consumption of fruits and vegetables should be a topic of conversation in the health-care reform debates.