KANSAS CITY - When life gives you lemons…

It’s a metaphor that’s been on many minds since COVID struck, and one that’s especially appropriate for the fresh produce industry. At the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association’s annual Fresh Summit convention (virtual, of course), PMA’s president and chief executive officer, Cathy Burns, sounded the theme many times — if not in so many words.

“Change is what happens to us — transformation is what happens because of us,” Burns said in her annual address to the industry. Throughout the speech, she invigorated attendees with the message that COVID could yield many opportunities, if the industry knows where to look for them and seize them once found.

It begins, Burns said, with accepting that post-pandemic, the world won’t magically return to how it was pre-pandemic.

“People talk about the new normal, but the new normal is just settling for whatever comes,” Burns said. “I’m far more interested in a new extraordinary that we make together.”

Was that old “normal,” Burns asked attendees, really good enough? COVID revealed one very important thing for the produce industry, she said: the products it grows, ships and sells aren’t just important, they’re “essential.” Capitalizing on that fact once the pandemic is over could open up whole new worlds.

The pandemic also created what Burns called “newfound and long overdue” respect for people working along every link in the food chain.

“It raised the visibility of these frontline heroes,” she said. “And countless growers and distributors embraced the pivot to help those in need and come up with solutions to help during the pandemic. We are all incredibly proud of the work you’ve done. And it gives the world even more reasons to pay attention to the incredible work we do from now on.”

In the “new extraordinary,” Burns said, the industry has a great chance to closing the gap between “produce excess and produce access.” One way of achieving that and other goals will be to build on the teamwork forged during the pandemic.

“Collaboration will be the new currency,” Burns said. “New partnerships are being forged, many with people that were never thought possible or logical.”

Grocery retailers, for instance, helped their struggling foodservice compatriots by selling restaurants’ foods in their deli prepared sections. Or urban farms set up shop inside supermarkets.

“Business rules are fundamentally changing and will continue to rapidly change,” Burns said. “Those who turn adversity into advantage will come out of this, on the other side, more focused.”

COVID also will accelerate what had already been building for some time, she added: the importance of purpose.

“One outcome from the pandemic is the rise of purpose as an organization’s north star,” Burns said. “We’ve heard that purpose is the new strategy, that is affects all decisions every day.”

Purpose, she added, can help provide a sense of belonging and is a powerful tool to achieve strategic outcomes. And it’s good for the bottom line. Companies that spotlight purpose outperform other companies by 5-7% per year, Burns said, citing Harvard Business Review and Deloitte figures.

A purpose-driven business, Burns said, is no stretch for the produce industry.

“Our industry’s purpose is to feed the world and provide joy, which gives us an incredible competitive advantage when recruiting and maintaining talent.”

Another silver lining of the pandemic has been a renewed and strengthened focus on personal wellbeing, another obvious plus for the fresh produce industry, Burns said. And that focus is coming with increased personalization.

“Personalized nutrition will generate revenue of $64 billion in 20 years,” Burns said, citing RBS statistics. “One startup allows consumers to configure their own garden plot in an indoor farm. Others have apps that match health concerns with produce items.”

Kroger rolled out is telehealth service during the pandemic, and other retailers will no doubt follow suit. About one in four adults actively manages their health through healthful food choices.

“Consumers are seeking us out — overwhelmed, overstressed consumers,” Burns said. “We must dwell on what’s possible, not what’s worked in past.”

Next best thing to being there  

While meeting virtually can never substitute for meeting in person — especially in a relationship-driven industry like fresh produce — Fresh Summit went off about as well as could be expected, attendees said.

“The educational sessions were awesome, really well done, and there was only one program we had trouble getting into,” said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the Irvine-based California Avocado Commission.

The number of meetings the commission was able to have was down because of the complete absence of walk-by impromptu booth meetings that are such a central part of each Fresh Summit, DeLyser said. That said, she reported several “meaningful” meetings with retailers and with students through PMA’s Career Pathways program.

At the show, the commission launched its new consumer ad video and posted other materials on its virtual booth home page.

“I give PMA kudos for grappling with the challenges of bringing the industry together,” she said.

Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing for Yakima, Wash.-based Sage Fruit Co., agreed.

“Going virtual is certainly more challenging for everyone but I feel the PMA has done a good job navigating this virtual experience,” he said. “The speakers did a very nice job considering the circumstances.”

That said, Sinks said there’s no substitute for the real thing.

“The virtual show was very interesting, but it’s clear that we all need to be able to have these shows in person to have the best experience possible. The bottom line is relationships in the produce Industry are very important and we need to get back to that as soon as it is safe to do so.”

At the show, Sage spotlighted its new Sage Express Box with Tote Bags, which proved to be a hit. Both the totes and the box they come in are recyclable.

“Customers have responded well,” Sinks said. “We were pleasantly surprised by the retailers that are interested in bringing in this new package that inquired through the virtual PMA.  It’s proving to help grow sales with the retailers that have brought it in.”

Change of pace

Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppy built dozens of meetings in the weeks leading up to and following Fresh Summit, so it was a busy time in which the company enjoyed doing business and planning for the future with contacts across its supply chain, said Karin Gardner, executive director of marketing.

“We felt it was a good experience,” Gardner said. “We felt that PMA did its best to deliver a robust program and a high level of connectivity for the international fresh produce community. And the sessions were insightful and in some ways even challenging.”

While it wasn’t the same as meeting in person, Fresh Summit provided a nice break from the day-to-day, hunkered-down pandemic life, Gardner said.

“It was a refreshing change in headspace, I found — plus it was just fun.”

Oppy trialed some new packaging ideas with customers at Fresh Summit, in particular for the Jazz brand apples it markets in North America.

Cecilia Flores Paez, head of marketing, North America, for T&G Global, owner of Jazz, said innovative packaging is a great way of drawing attention to the variety and stimulating demand. 

“We are always looking for new ways to promote our brands and better engage with our shoppers, understanding their preferences and shopping behaviors,” she said. “Current developments are focused on highlighting Jazz product attributes whilst offering a more sustainable packaging option.”