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A colleague of mine recently shared a story with me about resistance to change. Dave was recalling a comment that he heard at a seminar. The speaker asked the question, “If you could inject a poison into the arm of your competition that would virtually render him useless, what would it be?”

I offered him all the obvious answers, such as anthrax, botulism, and arsenic, but I was wrong. The most crippling poison, he said, is the mindset that “we have never done it that way before.” Doing business with that attitude today is a slow death. How many times have you heard that something can’t be done a certain way? I can tell you that we used to hear it constantly and sometimes still do, but thankfully not as much. As we all know, change really stresses folks out. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to deal with it.

The apple industry is changing, and the good news is, it’s for the better. On the growing side, new varieties are replacing what we have always grown, and the results are favorable. On the handling side, new storage techniques and new forms of packaging are revolutionizing the industry; not without stress, but for the better. Marketing is finally taking advantage of the nutritional value of apples, and the increasing demand for healthier foods is increasing the consumption of apples. Most importantly, better-tasting and better-eating apples are finding their way into grocery carts across the country. How could anybody be resistant to these changes that are growing sales?

Although some of the industry changes that are happening today are not quite as obvious and perhaps not as easy to accept, they too are creating positive results. A major change in the last few years, after the demise of the Washington Apple Commission, was the realization that despite their wealth or the power that the Apple Commission enjoyed, it was not invincible. By the stroke of a gavel, the Apple Commission as we knew it was gone. Perhaps this helped other organizations realize that they too could be at risk. They adjusted by strengthening their performance as well as identifying their objectives and priorities. By eliminating the “we have never done it that way before” attitude, they would became stronger. As an example, the fact that western growers had never partnered with eastern growers on issues such as export, won’t hold water today.

Export funding

Many years ago, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced the Market Access Program to provide marketing dollars to U.S. companies to grow export markets, the nation’s apple industry quickly got in line and received funding for the Apple Commission and a smaller group (in volume) called the U.S. Apple Export Council. The funding that started then continues today, but many changes have occurred since those first checks were written. Some changes were stressful and many were resisted, but in the end, they all have proven to be beneficial to the entire industry. Today, a vastly improved relationship exists between the Apple Commission, the Northwest Horticultural Council, and the Export Council. These groups have recognized the need to work together on issues that require a common stance and common position, especially in the export markets. As Chris Schlect of the Hort Council accurately put it, “An apple problem in Taiwan is not only a problem for Washington and California, but for New York, even though New York does not ship to that market.” Realizing this, these three organizations have gathered together to identify procedures and ways to speak as one group to address issues.

Recently, all three joined together with U.S. pear and Northwest pear groups to join the World Apple and Pear Association. Until now, the U.S. apple industry had not been represented. Prior to joining the WAPA, the Apple Commission and Export Council had been meeting to help develop a comprehensive industry strategic plan to better utilize federal export promotion funds. In the long run, this plan will provide more funding to both groups and better serve the U.S. apple industry, both East and West. This is an adjustment from the way we were, to the way we must be.

Crisis communications

In the late 1980s, the apple industry was the bad boy for food safety, thanks to the likes of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Meryl Streep, and 60 Minutes, but this year we were on the sidelines watching our vegetable friends take the hit because of food safety issues. Apple people learned the hard way and because of that today, we have a Crisis Communications Plan at U.S. Apple Association. We have leaders across the country ready to react as one industry with one voice and follow the lead of one organization.

The fresh produce industry (excluding apples) does not have one defined group or organization designated to take the lead on some issues. A number of commodity groups represent certain segments of the industry, such as potatoes, tomatoes, and onions for example, but many commodities do not have a specific group to turn to. For those commodities that are not represented by an association, it is important that they have a plan in place that will guide them to assistance when needed. One voice is needed to address issues in a time of crisis to best represent your commodity and your industry. Absent this, we all become vulnerable and weak and we are exposing agriculture to great risks. Adjusting to the future means planning should precede performance.