Sometimes perception is in mouth of taster

When I was a little boy, which some mornings seems like 100 years ago, I often spent a few days in the summer with my grandparents, on their Anderson County, S.C., farm.

I'd follow my granddad to the field and play in the dirt under a shade tree for most of the day, just for the opportunity to ride his plow horse back to the barn when we took a dinner break.

He attempted, on several occasions, to teach me to hold a plow straight while old Dick, his big red horse, tried to yank it out of my hands. I never could hold the plow in the row and after wiping out a few feet of corn, granddad usually rescued me and his crop and I went back to building sand houses and chasing striped lizards across the hot soil.

In late afternoon, we picked vegetables, cantaloupes and watermelons and packed them among hay bales in the bed of granddad's old orange Case pickup. The next morning we went peddling.

We had several country stores we often supplied with fresh produce, and then we hit the nearby small towns, I learned a lot about supply and demand, the appeal of fresh-from-the-farm, and misconceptions about quality during these peddling ventures.

All these little mill towns had grocery stores and all carried fresh produce. But the opportunity to buy a peck of pole beans out of a truck that just left the farm was often irresistible. And the price was usually better than at corner groceries. We cut out several middlemen.

Sweet corn was always a good item. Tomatoes were not; most milltown residents had at least a half-dozen plants in their back yards. Back in the 1950s, many mill workers were just one generation removed from the farm and still followed some primal urge to plant something every spring. That usually was a small garden plot that included a lot of tomatoes.

That tie to the farm also helped farmer-peddlers like my granddad sell produce. Folks who still remembered how good a fresh-picked cantaloupe tasted, compared to those picked green and ripened on a truck, appreciated the opportunity to buy one that had turned a dull yellow in the sun and carried that unmistakable odor of ripe melon. And at a quarter apiece, they were bargains.

Watermelons also sold well. We got $1.50 for the biggest ones and as little as 50 cents for midgets.

But folks were picky about their melons. I remember once when my granddad experimented with a new variety that produced pink flesh instead of the deep red he got from the round Florida Giant and the oblong Congo melons he usually raised.

We sold a few on a side street of a small town and were headed to the next block. One of our customers ran out into the street and yelled to his neighbors not to buy these melons, saying they were not ripe.

Granddad asked him to return the melon, refunded his money and we left town. The good thing was that we had an already cut watermelon we had to do something with, so I volunteered to take responsibility for disposing of it. It tasted just as sweet as any of the red melons we'd ever grown.

The perception, however, that we were selling an inferior product, ruined the market in that town.

I thought of that incident recently as I read an article about biotech products. Perception, not reality, continues to drive markets. If folks think a product is inferior, they will not buy it.

And it doesn't require an expert to turn a potential profitable market into a dead zone. A few individuals, either misguided or with agendas that have little to do with food quality, can ruin sales.

I had little invested in the peddling enterprise. The hour or two helping pick and pack the goods and the time I spent with my granddad peddling can hardly qualify as high stakes involvement. Mostly it was fun and I always got a quarter or two, plus a Coca-Cola and a candy bar for my troubles.

But granddad had a lot riding on the truckload of produce. The melons he didn't sell and I couldn't dispose of, went to his hogs. He lost money because one or two customers were not willing to try something new.

U.S. agriculture risks even higher stakes.

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