NEWARK — One thief, two grad students and a mushroom company executive with a truck caused the Produce Marketing Association to move from bustling New York City to suburban Newark nearly 60 years ago.It all started with the thief:
“The executive director ran off with the exhibit money,” said Kathy Means, the association’s vice president of industry relations.
Then the mushroom company executive sprung into action:
A board member who worked in the mushroom industry dispatched a mushroom truck to New York City to retrieve the association’s mimeograph machine and meager office supplies. They landed in Newark where she was pretty sure she could hire some grad students to keep the trade association running.
And then the grad students took over.
One of them, Bob Carey, served as CEO until 1996. That’s how an international organization came to operate from an office building on Casho Mill Road. “It’s sort of an accident that we’re here in Delaware, but it’s worked for us,” Means said.
The Produce Marketing Association, nearly 2,700 members strong, serves small companies and household names like Sunkist, Sysco, Dole, Denny’s, Acme and Applebee’s.
It started out life as the Produce Prepacking Association after World War II when the plastic films used in the war effort turned out to be useful in the food industry. Today, it represents food industry interests, reports on trends in the fresh produce and floral market and arranges events around the world. Cathy Burns, president of Food Lion until 2012, is CEO.
The PMA has a lobbyist in Washington and is watching trade regulations closely, but its core mission is connections. As Means put it, “We connect people with the information and insights and other people they need to know.”
They brokered a deal with Sesame Street to allow members to put Ernie or Big Bird on potato bags or vegetable labels royalty-free to encourage young children to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.
With real-time interpreters on hand, they introduce members around the world at events from China to Cape Town and Anaheim to Australia.
Members are waiting to hear how the Trump administration will proceed on trade.
“We’re very concerned, but we need to see more details. The president has an affinity for bilateral trade agreements rather than multilateral. That could take a long time — to do it one by one,” Means said. “But, if it works out, it might be OK. NAFTA has been good for our members. In the U.S. and Canada and Mexico, it has boosted jobs in produce and boosted availability.”
“People think that American is best. Well, there are no American bananas and there is no lettuce and cucumber in the winter, so, if we want to have salad in the winter, we need to trade with other countries,” Means said. “I hope they realize that it is not always about protecting something. Sometimes, it’s about providing something.”
Means said PMA hopes immigration will be settled so members can hire a legal workforce: “We want to have a system in the U.S. that works to allow whoever to come and help us harvest and package our crops. We’ve had members who have had to leave their fruits and vegetables in the fields to rot. That is a serious issue.”
The association has nearly 100 staffers in Newark and around the U.S., including two food safety scientists who work on making sure food safety rules are practical as well as effective.
It initiated a recruitment program to assure a supply of candidates in a specialized industry where “agronomy sales manager” is a job title.
It connects people to solve problems — from food-safety issues to a fruit cup that will fit in an SUV cup holder.
It follows stats. One fun one: About 85 percent of the carrot market is now baby carrots, which were originally cut from misshapen carrots that consumers wouldn’t purchase.
And, PMA members are among the first to spot the newest food trends. Hint: Riced vegetables.
“I think a lot of people think the food industry is a lot of farmers in overalls and pickup trucks,” Means said. “That’s not what our industry is. It’s very sophisticated.”