NWA focuses on virtual communications to pursue traditional mission
The mission of the National Watermelon Association, the oldest fruit commodity association in the United States, remains largely unchanged from what it was pre-COVID-19, but with restrictions on travel, in-person conversations and meetings with policy makers, the means by which that mission is pursued has changed.
“Last March, everything changed,” said Bob Morrissey, executive director of the Lakeland, FL-based National Watermelon Association.
The focus is now on constant electronic communications.
The NWA is certainly not alone in that regard, he noted, as virtually all of his peers who run produce organizations or, for that matter, any other non-profit, have had to take a completely different approach in how they go about doing what they do for their members.
Since its founding in 1914, the National Watermelon Association has expanded the services it provides for its members. “Typically, what we did pre-COVID-19, what we concentrated on, was everything that had to do with Washington as relates to the U.S. watermelon industry,” Morrissey said. That includes every kind of initiative that involved agriculture from the Farm Bill to H2A, from USDA to the Department of Labor. “Everything. You name it, we are involved in it,” he said.
Food safety, for example, “is very big. “We are involved with the FDA and the CDC if there are any issues we need to take a look at. We are also a partner with the Center for Produce Safety which handles research that looks into food safety specifically,” he said.
The NWA gets involved in “anything and everything that has to do with immigration reform, or any parts and pieces of it,” he said. “We are involved with the EPA when it comes to pesticide regulation and usage. We issue some research grants to universities and USDA labs every year to seek solutions for pest and disease pressures.”
The Association also deals with the Department of Transportation on matters dealing with trucking such as hours of service. Additionally, the association holds an annual national convention, which is heavily involved with education. It also famously crowns a National Watermelon Queen during the convention, selected from eight regional queens around the country. The national queen, working with the regional queens, typically spends the year making personal appearances around the country promoting watermelons.
“On top of that, we have an extensive communications program and social media platforms, e-newsletters, a digital quarterly magazine, and a constantly updated website,” Morrissey said.
Last March, “We were abruptly thrown into this virtual world,” he said. In person meetings were stopped in their tracks. At the same time, the importance of communicating with members about constant changes in rules and regulations affecting them shot to the top of the list. “Communications went from being a product of everything else we did to the main activity,” he said. “We focus on that every single day through countless zoom calls and conference calls.”
With so many things in flux, “we became a temporary society,” he said. “Whereas the association had traditionally been able to plan ahead and be pro-active in dealing with the myriads of issues facing the industry, suddenly we had to be reactionary. With the rules constantly changing with regard to labor, trucking, food safety, and so many other issues affecting the industry, our members need to know what is happening. Our focus is to keep them informed on a regular basis. That includes keeping them posted on almost daily changes on federal policies with the new administration as all of the rule and regulations that became temporary last year are either extended, changed to something different, or revert back to what they were before.”
Meanwhile, it was necessary to cancel the national convention scheduled for February, and the 2020 National Watermelon queen, Paige Huntington, who has been unable to do much traveling since her coronation due to COVID-19 restrictions, has agreed to serve another year.
“All in all, our approach to the COVID-19 era was to remain calm, be a voice of reason and continue to pursue our mission: shaping the watermelon industry for future generations,” he said. “We did that to the best of our ability, and will continue into the future. It has been an educational year for us and for our members as we grapple with keeping up momentum and keeping our programs intact — doing more with less. We are not taking our foot off the gas pedal. We can’t. We are expected to deliver, and we are going to deliver on that value no matter what the situation is. We will accomplish great things for our members and keep them informed every step of the way.”