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    FRESH FOOD: Hard rain

    The aftermath of turbulent weather cast a cloud over the PMA Show, but innovative ideas still shone through.

    One of autumn's important rituals, the Produce Marketing Association International Convention & Exposition, held this year in mid-October in Anaheim, Calif., yielded another robust harvest of significant produce-related product, promotion, and research and development, all promising to bear fruit in the months and years to come.

    The retailer and supplier executives who assembled at the trade show this fall, however, are also faced with the aftermath of actions taken by the industry's most powerful mover and shaker: Mother Nature, who whipped up intersecting weather events in two of the nation's foremost growing regions. That perfect storm of catastrophic events has continued to keep the pressure on produce buyers and sellers right into the all-important holiday selling season.

    To be sure, the unprecedented bicoastal crop woes stemming from devastating hurricanes in Florida and high heat and torrential rains in California—both exacerbated by historically high fuel costs—found retail produce executives jockeying to strike the proper balance between higher costs and inferior and/or inadequate selections.

    Among the key commodities most severely affected by the uncooperative weather: tomatoes; Florida citrus; cauliflower; broccoli; squash; green peppers; cucumbers; romaine, iceberg, and mixed baby lettuces; Georgia pecans; eggplant; melons; and seedless grapes.

    Nearly half of Florida's tomato crops were lost after four hurricanes in succession trashed the Sunshine State -- the primary fresh tomato source in the winter -- throughout August and September, wreaking havoc on wholesale prices that soared to nearly $25 per box in October from a high of $7.50 per box a year ago. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that tomato prices soared 167 percent higher in some places where shipments were being brought in from California to the East Coast.

    In October the U.S. Department of Citrus estimated the orange crop would be down 27 percent, tangelo production 28 percent, and the grapefruit crop 63 percent, compared with last year.

    In an effort to stem the bleeding, the Florida Citrus Commission began airing 15-second national television spots throughout the fall, imploring consumers to drink orange juice and help Florida rebuild from the destruction of the hurricanes.

    Clear skies ahead

    Whether consumers respond favorably to the Floridian citrus producers' message remains to be seen, but there's little doubt that most shoppers haven't been able to ignore the palpable effects of hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne when perusing the supermarket produce department in recent months.

    Also, as well as making many vegetables vulnerable to diseases that affected the size and appearance of some items, the soggy conditions throughout California caused delays in planting new crops, which will result in continued supply gaps in the near term.

    Consequently, with costs up and quality down, several retailers that have been increasingly committed to consistency are deciding to suck it up and absorb as many of the commodity price hikes as possible, while refusing deliveries and/or switching suppliers, to avoid disappointing customers through mixed messages.

    Chains such as Wegmans Food Markets, Ahold's Carlisle, Pa.-based Giant Food Stores and Tops Markets divisions, and several other regional and local operators have been making it a priority to keep their shoppers apprised of price increases and supply shortages, using weekly ads and in-store signage throughout the autumn.

    While prices are expected to come down gradually, the aforementioned chains have also cautioned that they'll be limiting their aggressive produce promotion activity until supplies return to normal levels. In the meantime they plan to promote the department's apple, potato, and banana categories.

    Clear skies are on the horizon: At presstime the Orlando-based Florida Tomato Growers Committee said its state's growers expected normal yields to resume by mid-December, when tomatoes can be harvested from areas unaffected by the hurricanes. It will obviously take longer for farmers to recover from citrus tree damage, though.

    With more than 95 percent of Florida's orange crop used for juice, however, the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association says shoppers likely won't feel the effects of the orange grove damage until next year.

    Bumper crop of innovation

    Meanwhile retailers can still count on produce suppliers to deliver innovation and progress on a variety of other important fronts.

    New to this year's show was the inaugural Fresh Summit Expo Contest, which awarded Best of Show prizes in two categories (in-line and island booths) to the California Avocado Commission, which won first-place honors, in the island booth category. Ponderosa Mushrooms placed first in the in-line booth category.

    Other show highlights included the presentation of the 2004 Floral Marketer of the Year award to Kathy Hession, director of floral for Milwaukee-based Roundy's, Inc., and the installation of Dave Corsi, v.p. of produce for Wegmans, as PMA's new 2004-05 retail division board chairman.

    This year's show also debuted a new program aimed at developing future leaders. The Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund paid for 24 food and agricultural marketing students and their faculty advisers from six colleges to attend the show and learn about the many career opportunities in the produce industry.

    PMA also released findings from a new consumer research project concerning Asian and Hispanic consumers' floral purchases. The research found that supermarkets are the preferred choice for flowers among Hispanic shoppers (39 percent), while home improvement stores top the list of floral sources for Asian consumers (35 percent).

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