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PMA insights from Cathy Burns

By
Cathy Burns, CEO of the Produce Marketing Association

As PMA prepares for its next steps on the path in serving the global fresh produce and floral communities (as part of a new association with United Fresh), I’ve had quite a few members reach out to me with their reflections on experiences they had with PMA over the years, particularly those memories from volunteering with us.

Cathy Burns
Cathy Burns

Personally, my first real volunteer experience from a member’s side was with the Produce Traceability Initiative, and since I joined the staff almost seven years ago, I’ve gotten the opportunity to see the power of a strong volunteer community and what it can do.

When I looked back at our history, volunteers in the early days of PMA literally ran the association. There was no professional staff to speak of. Operations were handled by a small, but committed, group of industry visionaries who saw the value in freely lending their expertise and energies to build an organization for the greater good of the industry. At that moment in time, packaging was the biggest issue as self-service retailing and convenience grew as primary consumer concerns. On Oct. 24, 1949, the Produce Prepackaging Association officially took root. 

Over the decades that followed, these first volunteers grew the association in both membership and focus, recognizing the true potential that fresh produce held not only for our businesses but for the health of the world. As the association and membership grew, our board of directors understood the need to be fluid and adapt to changes both inside and outside the industry.

These changes were seen in rebranding the PPA to our eventual current identity as the Produce Marketing Association, as well as the creation of new volunteer communities for topics such as floral, foodservice, and retail. I often wonder what our founders would think today when they see our global network of country councils and diverse assortment of committees.

While much has changed in how we work, what hasn’t changed is the quality and depth of our industry volunteers and their expertise. There is no other industry that has the heart, soul, and determination that fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers embodies every day. 

I believe this is because our products are grown, not simply made. We understand that the best of things are cultivated with time, energy, nourishment, and faith. There is so much in our business that cannot be controlled or guaranteed from weather to geopolitical shifts. But we prepare, and we persevere, and we have faith that whatever we can’t solve on our own, we can face together. 

I remember sitting in an airport on Leap Day (Feb. 29) of 2020 after returning from visiting PMA members in Yuma and Mexico. I was on my way to meet with our global volunteers who served on the Global Development Committee for our annual meeting in Madrid, Spain. I was reflecting on our visits and sharing with the PMA team the important themes from those in-person visits. Packaging, shifting talent needs, produce safety and driving consumption. It was affirming to know that the work that we had committed our experts and staff to was exactly what the industry needed. We were aligned; we were in lock step.

I don’t think anyone realized that the world could change as quickly as it did just a few days after we returned from Madrid. Business plans, marketing plans, travel plans — everything went out the window in a matter of days. Our team reorganized, we knew that while we could not provide answers, we could — as our predecessors did  — bring together the industry to start diagnosing our challenges and start connecting the loose ends of our supply chain. 

So many of you and your peers from around the globe stepped forward and shared your experiences with us so that we could share those with the entire industry as we navigated through the uncertain waters of the pandemic.

Out of this came the Virtual Town Hall series, interviews with the experts, Members Helping Members, the PMA Takes on Tech Podcast, and so much more.  Each of these initiatives came to life thanks to the contributions of our volunteers and our members.

If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that the only thing to expect is the unexpected. While the coming together of PMA and United Fresh may be considered by some “unexpected,” the reality is we will be Better Together. And an integral part of that is a foundation of strong volunteer leadership and engagement. 

I am grateful for the industry allowing us to serve you all as the Produce Marketing Association for over 70 years and I am eager and inspired by the work we will do together in the years to come.

Photo: PMA volunteers helped to sort and rescue produce to ensure that it could reach families and those in need at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market during the 2018 FC Retail event.

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