"It is better to be sorry you sold too low than to be sorry you didn't sell at all."
That is the motto of the merchants who deal in fresh fruits and vegetables here. If their highly perishable merchandise doesn't move quickly, it spoils. That fact of life, they claim, guarantees consumers fair or bargain prices, and means producers often lose money in a highly risky business.
Representatives of the industry spent an entire day last week showing food editors from across the nation the farm-to-supermarket production-delivery chain.
It was an effort to demonstrate the wide variety of factors - from tiny insects to massive transportation problems - that affect food prices. There was no promise of reductions. Instead, the message to consumers was a plea to look beyond price.
The editor visited a wholesale produce terminal here, the produce warehouse of a supermarket chain and the giant Irvine Ranch in Orange County, where significant amounts of citrus fruit, avacados, strawberry, corn, califlower, asparagus, and other crops are grown.
California leads the nation in production of alfalfa seeds, asparagus, avacados, lima beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, califlower, celery, garlic, grapes, lemons, lettuce, melons, onions,peaches, Barlett pears, Prunes, spinach, strawberries and tomatoes. It is virtually the only producer on a commercial scale of almonds and walnuts, artichokes, dates, figs, raisins, olives and pomegranates. It is, according to a state agricultural official, "the seventh largest agricultural country in the world."
Of course, the billions of dollars' worth of production and millions of dollars of investments are just numbers to consumers. They care about the condition and price of a head of lettuce or a basket of strawberries in their supermarket. That concerns producers too.
The Californians talked about drip irrigation (a system by which the crops receive less water more often) and Intergrated Pest Management (using less pesticide more constructively). These innovations are intended to reduce production cost and increase yields.
Government and university sponsored research are given high priority. Through research, the California strawberry yield had been pushed to 22.4 tons per acre; the average yield elsewhere is 2.5 tons per acre. "Good" bugs are being used extensively to fight "bad" bugs in the fields. For example, last year the Irvine Ranch purchased $28,000 worth of insects to "plant" in their fields.
Further down the production chain, produce wholesale terminals are being redesigned with government assistance to make more effecient.
Producers are taking steps to utilize rail transportation, virtually abandoned for cross-country shipments in favor of trucks. The plan is to have shipper co-ops send presealed trailer loads to a terminal point in Chicago. From there they will continue by truck. A spokeman for the Western Growers Association called this the "greatest hope" for keeping supplies flowing to the Eastern cities that absorb 60 percent of Claifornia's produce. The industry is deeply concerned about a proposed safety regulation that will force drivers of trucks to increase their off-duty hours, thereby lenghtening delivery time to the East.
Another concern is "non-production risks and problems." According to farmers, environmental repercussions, regulatory costs and consumer demands for improved quality and cleanliness all have to be recognized as factors that make their lives more uncertain and to add to the cost of food.
Jerry Scribner, a consumerist who has become deputy director of the state's department of food and agriculture (note the emphasis on food) spoke about a newly released report on the use of pesticides. "It's a critical self-analysis," he said. "We're not doing good enough. But we recognize that very dangerous stuff is being used for very good ends." The farmers say that each $1 spent for pesticides has increased their yield by $4.
A few spoke about the harm that has been done by magazine and television ads picturing "too beautiful foods" and said consumers should be lead to accept fresh foods for what they are and believe the beauty is in tasting them.
The overall message, however, was that farmers receive an "unfair" return for their efforts; that they deserve more and need more if agriculture is to continue to make such a major contribution to the domestic standard of dining and to the U.S. balance of trade.
One speaker pointed out that agriculture products account for one quarter of our exports. Another said the farmer's average return on investment was a mere 2.3 percent. "The farmer is being squeezed again," said an agricultural economist. Nearly 70 cents of each dollar spent on food goes to middlemen.
At the Irvine Ranch, the editors were told how little profit comes from a crate of lettuce or a box of corn. In some portions for the vast property, housing development had displaced citrus groves or soon will.
But formerly unused hillsides are being developed for avocados and other produce and experiments are being conducted with peaches, plums, cherries and apricots. There is hope of encouraging some crops to mature at a different time than they do in the Central Valley, thus creating a second season or at least extending their peak season.
Whatever the economists' graph charts indicate, seen close-up agriculture in California is alive and charged with creativity and imagination.