Priests in agriculture

The latest voices planning to weigh in on the federal Farm Bill belong to, interestingly enough, priests. This week, the Diocese of Sacramento is one of four dioceses nationwide to host hearings that may lead to a “pastoral letter or a strong statement by the bishops that may pack as much punch as their pastorals on nuclear weapons and economic justice,” reads a press release.

Panel discussions were held June 18-20 at the St. Anthony Church library in Sacramento and featured guest speakers from the government, universities, growers’ groups and farm worker advocates. Topics included fair farm prices and concentration, conservation, food security, sustainable agriculture, the economic and social impacts of California agriculture and farmer-farm worker relationships.

The presumption is that farm policy means survival (because we have to eat) and human rights, so the church should play a role in how things end up at the national level.This space was going to be devoted to a rundown of how this year’s fruit crops are doing, as reported June 12 by the California Agricultural Statistics Service. But when I tried to call the California Prune Board to get a perspective on the impact of that crop’s being down 29 percent from 2000, I got a better idea.

So, I call the contact number for what used to be the prune board, except now it’s the dried-plum board, and I get some guy who says “Ketchum” and doesn’t know anything about prunes or dried plums. “We have 10 or 20 people working on that account. I need a name,” he said, sounding vaguely exasperated.

Turns out it’s some PR firm out of San Francisco. But I should not have been so dismissive of the prune people hiring out, because it turns out Ketchum has done well by the industry. I came across an article in the Holmes Report, a publication for public-relations professionals, that details how Ketchum helped get Food and Drug Administration approval for the name change from prunes to dried plums. The thing reads like one of my old college PR textbook case studies.

“For years prunes have been the subject of jokes and toilet humor,” bemoaned the firm, in calling for a “lighthearted” campaign.

Ketchum’s “bold strategy,” which included “guerilla sampling,” was to target the primary consumer group of women aged 35 to 50 with a higher-than-average household income and education, gauging their perception of prunes and finding out if they would be more likely to buy dried plums.

A wrench was thrown into the works when word of the FDA application—and the involvement of Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—was leaked to the Washington Post. Ketchum ran with it, so to speak (that was toilet humor there, in case you missed it), and proceeded with the media campaign. The June 6, 2000, FDA approval was also leaked, and Ketchum “immediately began aggressive media pitching using wire and satellite vehicles to gain control of the name change message.”

Ketchum even took credit for mention of the name change on The Tonight Show, plus an increase in awareness and sales.

And that’s why you want to go out and eat dried plums right now.