The produce business is a complicated one. Few know that better than Rick Alcocer, who’s spent his entire career in the business. As a fresh-faced grad, he landed his first gig at Dole as a financial analyst. Bored and craving more excitement than the company’s accounting department could offer, he soon seized the opportunity to jump on the sales desk. The move was the right one. “I knew that I had more of a personality for sales and that was what I was going to enjoy,” he says. From Dole, Alcocer moved to produce firm Tanimura & Antle for a stretch, and eventually to his current role at Duda Farm Fresh Foods, where he is now senior vice-president of sales.
During the nearly 40-year span of his career, the produce business has undergone tremendous change and challenges aplenty—ranging from labour woes to safety concerns, not to mention thorny trade issues. With his term as chair of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA) drawing to a close in April, Canadian Grocer chatted with Alcocer—who is, incidentally, the CPMA’s first international chair—about everything from climate change to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the need for a federal Food Policy Statement on Fruit and Vegetable consumption. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in the produce department over the years?
The continued growth of bagged salad varieties and healthy snack packs. I think that is really changing the way all of us are looking at the business. As a producer, it’s huge. It’s continually changing for us, and we’re much more quickly having to come up with new things to put on the shelves to sell to the consumer because the consumer is changing so much. Also, the abundant choices of fruits and vegetables in the supermarket. I remember going into a store as a young kid and literally the produce section was probably one aisle—maybe 20 to 30 feet, and that was the entire produce department. Now, it’s close to 10 times that size. When you think of the logistics of getting that produce from all over the world or 250 miles away, it’s mind-boggling how we’re able to get beautiful healthy food on the supermarket shelf.
Produce is an industry impacted tremendously by weather and climate change. Is the industry doing enough or moving quickly enough to mitigate effects of climate change down the road?
Tough question. Are we in a new short- or long-term climate pattern and is it different from what we’ve had before? Who knows? But I think some of the things we’re seeing growth in is a move in the right direction; certainly greenhouses and hydroponic gardens can be made portable and moved to avoid the negative impacts of some of these natural occurrences. Another one that we’re hearing more and more about is aquaculture—the cultivation of aquatic plants for food. If we can start really looking at that type of food source, that can help. Another move in the right direction are the regional programs throughout Canada and the U.S. that continue to grow. So, in essence, the more you have things spread around, it becomes less likely that it is all going to get taken out by a natural disaster.
What are some of the other challenges?
Labour! It’s a big one. Finding consistent and reliable labour year-round and seasonal has been a problem for the last four or five years, and every year it gets tougher and tougher. And then a safe food supply—the real challenge about that is the inequity. We need to make food safety regulations the same for both domestically produced as well as imported fresh fruit and vegetables, and we don’t do that right now. It’s something we have to really look at.
NAFTA seems to be on everyone’s mind— in your view what are the worst case and best case scenarios to come out of the renegotiations?
Worst case would be if any one of the three countries [Canada, United States, Mexico] decide to leave NAFTA. This would hurt all three parties, as this trade agreement has been mutually beneficial for all three parties. It could result in potential new trade tariffs, import fees and seasonal tariffs … all of which would raise overall prices for consumers. The best case would be that all three countries are able to negotiate changes and updates within the agreement that will help offset some of the inequities that were not evident at NAFTA’s inception, creating a modern and more equal NAFTA for all three countries. But our industry is a microcosm in the amount of total dollars involved in all of NAFTA; I really do think if you could get all of us produce folks together we’d have it done in a day. I think most of us have the right mindset and would like it to work out.
Your term as chair of CPMA is coming to an end. What would you say are some of the most important issues you worked on over the past year?
NAFTA is probably where I’m putting in the most effort with continued lobbying efforts in the U.S. and Canada—meeting with officials and discussing the need for perimeter trade borders that really encapsulate North America, rather than the divisive trade border structure that we have currently. And the next one, which is dear to my heart, is we’ve been lobbying the government of Canada for a Proposed Federal Food Policy Statement, which would support the goal of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption of all Canadians by 20% by 2020. There are so many benefits to Canadians, health being a major one, if we can do that. It’s huge!