By Dave Puglia, President & CEO
How do we keep our spirits up in times like this? How does one find reasons for optimism when so much is going wrong?
Over the course of my nearly 17 years at Western Growers, I have learned that being around farmers long enough will temper even the most cynical minds, and as someone who has spent decades working in politics it is fair to say that I am especially vulnerable to bouts with cynicism.
But as we embark on a new year and who-knows-what-crap the world will throw at us in 2022, I am optimistic.
Through all the political, legal and industry challenges we confronted together in 2021, our industry persevered thanks to the common and defining characteristics of the people in it: integrity, honesty, morality, sacrifice, charity.
At a time in which government actions and policies directed toward the agriculture industry are adversarial beyond any historic comparison, the men and women of the Western U.S. fresh produce industry keep finding ways to do right and to do better than anywhere else. That can’t be the work of pessimists; only an optimist can get out of bed every day, knowing the nonsensical and expensive headaches that await that only detract from growing healthy food.
As advocates for Western Growers members, that unacceptable reality drives me and everyone on the WG team every day. We must keep advocating in the halls of governments, and fighting for our interests in political campaigns, to restore balance and common sense in public policy. The successes are too infrequent, yet the people of this industry rise every day with an optimism that defies the Powers That Be.
What is the source of this optimism? How does it persist?
In 2021, I spent a good amount of time on the road, visiting longtime WG members who provide the greatest support to our association. I sought out members who do not sit on the WG Board and thus have less interaction with the WG team. It is an understatement to say that I was inspired and energized by their confidence, faith, and determination in the face of so many troubles.
An especially striking moment occurred during a visit with Joe Colace of Five Crowns Marketing in Brawley. Joe has been off the WG Board for many years now, so it was wonderful to catch up. At one point as we compared notes on the never-ending attacks on our industry by the California Legislature and the state’s regulatory agencies, I said something about how sad it is that so many people in the industry are looking to other states and countries to expand and invest. Right on cue, Joe replied that Five Crowns was putting the finishing touches on a large new cooling facility in…California!
“Why the (bleep) would you do that?” I asked. Joe confidently smiled and said that he and his team have such strong partners throughout the state, they knew they could make it work. In so many words, Joe said that through hard work, excellence in all they do, and a commitment to the highest business values and ethics, they could grow their business—even in California.
That was not what I was expecting to hear.
Then, as if to bookend the year, in December I moderated a panel discussion at the Organic Grower Summit in Monterey, featuring three “next generation” organic leaders: Keith Barnard (Mission Produce, Oxnard, Calif.); Bianca Kaprielian (Fruit World, Reedley, Calif.); and Michael Valpredo (Country Sweet Produce, Bakersfield, Calif.). All three grew up in farm families; two were urged by their fathers not to stay in the business. All three came of age, professionally, just as California’s public policy apparatus careened further and further away from common sense. Yet two of them left their initial careers outside of ag to return to the farm business, the third stayed in the family business, and all three have succeeded in launching new businesses or growing existing ones.
I asked whether they would encourage the next generation to work in this industry and they lit up with enthusiasm about the healthy food they provide through incredibly hard work. Bianca advised the next generation: “Don’t be jaded…For all the challenges we experience, there’s innovation to combat that, and there’s so much opportunity.”
An iconic leader of our industry invests in a major new facility in California. Younger professionals with many career options double down on an industry and a place they all describe as challenging and frustrating, but also exciting and rewarding.
Winston Churchill remarked, “For myself, I am an optimist—it does not seem to be much use being anything else.” That’s certainly practical, but I still think there is an individual choice to be made. For the 400-plus people who chose Western Growers as their employer, our members fuel our optimism and energize the hard work we undertake.
Here’s to a new year of challenges and opportunities. Cynicism be damned.