Third generation California produce grower Bruce Taylor believes the future success of U.S. agriculture lies directly in industry innovation at many levels and the collaboration among companies.
Taylor, a vegetable industry innovator, helped found Taylor Farms in 1994 which today not only grows crops but has nine manufacturing facilities in North America. The farm leader is viewed as a pioneer of the packaged salad business.
Taylor is the 2014 board chairman of Western Growers, and discussed innovation during his address at the organization’s annual meeting in Las Vegas, Nev. this fall.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Taylor summarized the need for advanced high tech agricultural discoveries similar to the technological strides achieved in the health care industry.
“If we can have a robot today conduct brain surgery on a human being, we can figure out a way for a robot to pick a strawberry,” Taylor said.
He acknowledged that modern agriculture is a “complicated and challenging business.” Change is critical to push agriculture to higher levels.
Ag's PR battle
While innovations in equipment and technology are critical to reshape agriculture, Taylor says innovations are needed in how the agricultural industry communicates. Farming today is dealing with a negative war of words where non-farm groups want to reshape agriculture according to their own visions.
And for the most part, Taylor believes agriculture is losing in the verbal attack, but that can change.
An example, the farm leader shared, was that California agriculture is losing the fight against the Delta smelt.
“Fish are winning over farmers, families, and food; brought forth first by environmentalists and now main stream companies who want to change the consumer’s vision of agriculture.”
Such companies, Taylor says, include the retailers the Whole Foods Market and the Chipotle restaurant chain, who have conventional agriculture, including banning many pesticides, in their crosshairs.
“Whole Foods Market invites you to separately bag your conventional produce from your organic produce so the two don’t touch,” Taylor shared.
A Whole Foods’ television campaign discusses personal values, which Taylor says, suggests that ‘people with values’ should buy organic and sustainable food products whether produce, meat, or fish.
Taylor argued, “This undermines the trust in our food system and the consumption of our products.”
On Chipotle, Taylor discussed a television program on the Hulu TV service called “Farmed and Dangerous” where Chipotle expresses its negative position on the use of petrochemicals in food production.
The program includes exploding cows which suggests the negative idea that the bovine had consumed grain fertilized by petrochemicals.
Safe food at supermarket?
The Taylor Foods president and chief executive officer also shared a recent personal experience while shopping for a pair of jeans. The shopkeeper expressed interest in building a backyard garden due to their concern over the quality of food for sale at the supermarket.
“This undermines our food (supply) and consumer trust in our businesses,” Taylor said.
The good news is solutions are in agriculture’s reach, he says.
“Instead of fighting what we cannot control, let’s work together on things we can control.”
Taylor laid out several ways to help the farming sector move forward. The first suggestion was for agricultural companies to stop competing against each other on the price side and instead launch cooperative selling to gain more value for farm products.
Second, Taylor believes since agriculture is losing the public relations battle that highly creative ideas are needed, and quickly, to change consumer concerns about food safety.
He discussed the public relations initiative launched by the ALS Association this last summer to raise money to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. The progressive neurodegenerative disease damages nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
The ALS Association harnessed social media with the idea for people to dump a bucket of ice water on someone’s head to promote disease awareness and encourage donations to research. The idea instantly went viral with ice-dumping events held around the world.
According to ALS, donors across the globe contributed $115 million for ALS research tied to the ice-bucket campaign.
Positive viral message
Taylor says agriculture needs to spread a positive viral message that would generate a better understanding of agriculture.
One idea Taylor shared - find true experiences where agriculture has made a tremendous positive impact on families. An idea he floated was a billboard where farm employees share personal stories – i.e. ‘I harvest strawberries for so-and-so company and my daughter is a student at UCLA,’ or ‘I am a second generation machine operator at a farm packing company and my son is a doctor.’
True examples of this, he believes, occur across the agricultural industry, but there is no systematic way – yet - to gather pro-farming information and share it in a strategic, innovative way. The vegetable industry has allied groups, Taylor says, which could help lead such an effort.
“I think this is a great opportunity to combat consumer fears about agriculture. We have to overcome people’s fears so they believe that agriculture is good and their food supply is safe.”
Taylor’s final thought was for companies to accelerate innovation together, instead of individually, so agriculture can better control its destiny.
“Individually, we can innovate but it’s slower, clumsier, and cost companies more money. The only way to make innovation successful is by collaborating together,” Taylor concluded.