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Texan takes over at California Tree Fruit Agreement

Blair Richardson knows there is nothing you can do when the wind howls across the plains of his West Texas hometown Big Spring, but he hopes to play a key role in shifting the direction of the California tree fruit industry away from unprofitable grower prices and to greater consumer preference for tree fruit from the Golden State.

For reasons more numerous than the number of peach varieties now grown by California producers, American consumers have shifted their individual buying habits away from peaches, plums and nectarines.

California’s annual stone fruit shipments increased from 22 million to 56 million boxes between 1971 and 2001. However, this was at the expense of other tree fruit regions of the country.

Per capita consumption for peaches and plums has actually fallen since 1970, and nectarines have increased only slightly. Per capita consumption of non-citrus fresh fruit increased sharply from 72 pounds to more than 106 pounds the past 30 years. The big winners in that surge were bananas (17 pounds to almost 30 pounds) and strawberries from slightly less than two pounds to almost five pounds.)

California tree fruit is getting nudged out in the supermarket produce departments, and the charge for the 35-year-old Richardson as president of CTFA is to reverse the downward spin. CTFA is a marketing order paid for by the industry’s 1,400 growers to promote California stone fruit.

One element of this new direction comes from an analysis of the industry recently by agAccess, a consulting group from Davis, Calif. hired by CTFA. Highlights of that study were presented recently at the annual CTFA meeting.

Learning experience

Rick Schellenberg, Reedley, Calif., grower and chairman of a special strategic planning subcommittee charged with directing new programs designed to improve grower profitability, said the analysis process was challenging, healthy and an interesting effort.

"All of the growers, packers and shippers who worked on the plan have come away with greater knowledge of our industry and where we need to go," he said.

The next step, he said, will be developing "action steps to be implemented" by Richardson’s staff and CTFA committees.

It will a daunting challenge because there has been no profit in growing peaches, plums and nectarines for the past five years. Prices have averaged only $5.50 to $7 per box over that time span — below the breakeven cost of $7.81.

This new direction, according to many, comes as tree fruit growers are going out of business because of low prices for their fruit, higher labor costs and reduced water supplies.

"We are getting squeezed at every turn," said Schellenberg.

What makes that squeeze even more frustrating is the huge disparity between what they get for their fruit and what supermarkets charge consumers. Growers see that and know there is money that could come back to them, but how to get a piece of it remains a $64,000 question.

Cotton brought Richardson to California from his native Texas. He went to work for Calcot Ltd., the West’s biggest cotton marketing cooperative based in Bakersfield, Calif. He joined Calcot immediately after graduating from Texas A&M University in the late 1980s, and quickly moved up the structure there working in international sales, marketing and economic research. He left there just two years ago to join an Internet food e-commerce subsidiary of a 110-year-old San Francisco international food and beverage trading company.

Outside perspective

He’s obviously still learning his way through the CTFA structure, but had looked at it from an outside perspective in his last position with the food and beverage trading company. He is excited about tree fruit marketing in the future.

"The fresh fruit side of California agriculture holds a lot of opportunity through issues of food security, DNA and pesticide use. These things could require a very stringent set of regulations for food," said Richardson.

"California is at a distinct advantage because Americans want to have faith that their food supply is safe and healthy and that means they want it produced locally — in America," he said.

However, if American consumers are like Richardson’s wife, Jill, they want a more consistent product than they’ve been getting.

"When I told my wife I was interviewing for the position with CTFA, she said ‘There is nothing better than a great peach. Problem is I do not know that I am always getting a great peach every time I go shopping.’"

Her views are no different than other consumers and many producers, who believe farmers can be their own worst enemy by giving consumers poor eating quality fruit.

Confidence issue

Richardson said the challenge for him and CTFA will be to increase consumer confidence in the quality of peaches, plums and nectarines.

"The industry (growers and packers) have the bottom line responsibility to put a good product on the market. If the product is there, CTFA will do its best to promote it in the most efficient manner," he said.

In looking at competing products, the strategic planners noted a seminal event that turned consumption upward. For example, Del Monte began a marketing program for more ripe pineapples. It was called "gold" pineapple. Within a year, pineapple consumption doubled and all pineapple marketers benefited. Darker meat pineapples are more ripe and therefore sweeter than light-colored fruit.

Richardson talked with producers as he went through the interview process. "I found out quickly there were a lot of opinions…it did not take a lot of prying to get people to express those opinions."

One he discovered was the "perceived disconnect" between CTFA and the industry. "Growers did not understand what the association was doing and why.

"I am not sure why that perception is there, but it may be more of a factor of the economic times. In the past when the industry was profitable, they did not worry about what CTFA was doing.

"Now, when times are tougher, they wonder where their money is going," he said.

"That is just one issue, There are many more growers are very passionate about," he said, mentioning specifically the preconditioning of tree ripe fruit and the fragmentation of the industry.

The consulting firm alluded to that, noting that 83 percent of the growers farm less than 100 acres and represent 24 percent of all stone fruit acres in the state. Sixteen percent farm between 101 and 1,000 acres and represent 48 percent of all stone fruit acres. Only 1 percent farm more than 1,000 acres and represent 28 percent of all stone fruit acres.

There are 258 packers in the state and the trend is toward packer consolidation. However, the stone fruit industry "remains highly fractured," said agAccess. "The largest packers individually have no more than 4 to 6 percent of total industry shipments."

"There are ways of addressing that," he said, citing the state’s vegetable industry which has come together through contract growing and packers associations to bolster marketing opportunities. The same alliances are starting to be formed in tree fruit.

Richardson is hopeful the industry’s lackluster past remains there — behind it — and he is "very excited about the future.

"I think we will see more focusing on specialty crops at the federal and state government level through things like the Market Access Program. I am real excited about working with the governor on his Buy California effort," he said.

Richardson is the first member in his family in generations to leave Texas and he has not looked back. "These are exciting and challenging times for agriculture, and I am grateful to be a part of it here in California."

"I am impressed with what this industry has accomplished to date and the position California tree fruit holds among production areas worldwide," he added. "There is obviously more to be done if the growers of California tree fruit are to survive and prosper."

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