Meet 10 People Who Are Influencing Different Segments of The Produce Industry

Meet 10 People Who Are Influencing Different Segments of The Produce Industry

People In Produce

Meet 10 People Who Are Influencing Different Segments of The Produce Industry

October 3, 2017

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In every industry, there are outstanding individuals who go above and beyond to improve the world around them. Produce is no different. From ag-tech to marketing to urban farming, these people are propelling the industry forward. In this month’s cover story, meet 10 of the leading People in Produce.

Do you know someone you think should be recognized in a future issue? Drop us a line at cmanning@gie.net. We’d love to know who you think is making a difference.

Specialty crops

Andrew Carter, CEO and co-founder, Smallhold

Photo courtesy of Andrew Carter

Photo courtesy of Andrew Carter

The authority on New York City mushroom production offers customers hyperlocal subscription-based farms.

graduate of the University of Vermont with a degree in ecological design and environmental sciences, Andrew Carter says that in college he learned a lot about mushroom production — a prime educational example of bioremediation. Following graduation, he worked in greenhouses, growing primarily hydroponic leafy greens and herbs, and consulted for vertical, container and warehouse farmers. A couple years ago, things came full-circle when he saw how he could launch the only operating mushroom farm in New York City.

Along with Adam DeMartino, Carter began Smallhold, which grows mushrooms in a container farm by Brooklyn’s East River and ships subscription-based “Minifarms” to restaurants and grocery stores throughout New York City. “I read a lot,” he says about the research he had to conduct before being able to corner the New York mushroom-growing market. “I went out to a few big farms and spoke with the operators there.”

Although Smallhold is still in its early stages, Carter hopes to expand its markets beyond the five boroughs and also potentially begin growing leafy greens and herbs. “In my opinion, as far as the ag market is concerned, you have to be competitive on freshness and price,” he says.

Smallhold’s roughly six-foot-tall Minifarms include rack row chambers that the company has developed in-house that are equipped with WiFi, LED lights, climate control and irrigation, Carter says. “It’s mostly automated, but when we want to update parameters or we want to change anything, we take care of that,” he says.

Carter calls Smallhold’s nine mushroom varieties gourmet and exotic, and they encompass everything from shiitakes to lion’s mane to oyster to pioppino — a delicacy in Italy. The company sells the mushrooms at a competitive price, and due to their proximity to the end consumer, they are very fresh.

“What we’re really figuring out is a way to bring the freshest produce humanly possible to our customers,” Carter says. “By growing it right there, there’s nothing better than that. We’re really working on ways of streamlining that process, making it affordable and making it easy for everyone to have their food growing right there.” — Patrick Williams

Vertical Farming

Photo courtesy of Henry Gordon-Smith

Photo courtesy of Henry Gordon-Smith

Henry Gordon-Smith,

Founder and managing director, Agritecture Consulting

Henry Gordon-Smith found his niche in agriculture by chasing new opportunities.

enry Gordon-Smith spent his childhood overseas. He was born in Hong Kong, and lived in Japan, Germany, the Czech Republic and Russia before attending university in Canada. While he was not directly engaged in agriculture while growing up, his international experiences primed him for his current career as the managing director of Agritecture Consulting, a company that helps to plan, design and implement urban agriculture projects around the world.

“I grew up in big cities, and big cities force you to think about how you’re using space,” Gordon-Smith says. “You have the chance to engage with so many different cultures and ways of thinking that it forces you to think in a more diverse approach, which I think is a big part of my philosophy.”

Gordon-Smith was first exposed to urban farming and its benefits while studying at a university in Vancouver, Canada. Involvement in local sustainable farming efforts and his own studies lead him to found a blog focused on vertical and urban farming issues called Agritecture (agritecture.com) while also volunteering at various urban ag operations to obtain hands-on- growing experience. Recently, Agritecture merged with Blue Planet Consulting — where Gordon-Smith served as managing director — to form Agritecture Consulting.

After graduation, he bought a one-way ticket to New York City to become an urban farmer. Despite not landing a job immediately, he stayed there, spent time studying at Columbia University under industry pioneer Dickson Despommier and ultimately found his current niche as a consultant. Now, five years after moving to New York, he wants to help people embark on their own journeys into urban agriculture as he continues his own.

“I want to be known as someone who's excited about this [industry], in it for the long-term and is ready to help people progress,” Gordon-Smith says. — Chris Manning

Technology

Dr. Nate Storey

Co-founder and chief science officer, Plenty

Photo courtesy of Plenty

Photo courtesy of Plenty

Storey works to bring local, clean produce to communities around the world.

Dr. Nate Storey first made his mark on the produce industry by developing the ZipGrow Tower, a vertical farming system, at Bright AgroTech, a vertical farming equipment manufacturer he founded. Now, as a co-founder and the chief science officer at Plenty, a high-tech indoor farming company, he’s part of a team that’s trying to give everyone access to local food.

Storey started in agriculture by studying aquaculture-integrated hydroponics at the University of Wyoming, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. There, he was able to pursue research projects specific to his interests — projects that lead him to found Bright AgroTech and develop the ZipGrow Towers over a two-year period while he earned his Ph.D.

“[The university] supported my research,” Storey says. “This wasn’t research other universities were interested in or saw as valuable.”

Now, at Plenty, he’s continuing the work he did at Bright AgroTech — which was recently purchased by Plenty — and taking it further. Plenty’s goal is to bringclean, local food to communities across the world that’s grown in its vertical container farms. And, despite only being a young company, Plenty is already a success story.

According to Storey, Plenty is already competitive with field-grown pricing on different greens and herbs and should eventually be able to replace “a good portion” of what field growers currently produce. Publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and Bloomberg say Plenty is a model business in a rapidly evolving industry.

This year, it also received a $200 million investment — the largest ever for an ag-tech company, according to TechCrunch — from a venture capital group that includes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

And while Storey understands that it’s not “free money,” he knows and appreciates that his work can make an impact beyond the checkbook.

“I love that I’m impacting the future of humanity,” he says. “I am not powerless to see my ideas come to life.” — Chris Manning

Association leadership

Lauren M. Scott

 Photo courtesy of Lauren M. Scott

 Photo courtesy of Lauren M. Scott

Chief marketing officer, Produce Marketing Association

A foodie from the beverage industry breaks into a leading produce and floral organization.

Self-proclaimed foodie and experienced marketer Lauren M. Scott appears to have found her dream job. A year ago, she was named chief marketing officer for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). In her new role, she has the unique opportunity to help all businesses in the produce and floral industry prosper.

“I’ve always been a foodie and I’ve worked in the beverage business at Pepsi and Diageo most of my career,” says Scott. “When the PMA opportunity came my way, it gave me the chance to work with leaders in two of the most popular categories in culture today — produce and floral. I wanted to contribute my talent, energy and skills to help these industries grow and prosper worldwide.”

Scott says she’ll be working with her colleagues at PMA to help members by:

  • Examining the landscape: consumer/industry research, including the role culture plays in this space.
  • Offering actionable insights on strategic marketing: how it complements existing sales and marketing efforts and can be used as a discipline to grow a business.
  • Providing resources companies can use to build their businesses, such as eat brighter! (pma.com/events/eat-brighter) and more.

“Our industry is operating in a highly competitive, dynamic food marketplace,” Scott says. “We have to understand that marketplace and then break through the clutter so that our member companies can perpetually thrive.”

In addition to helping established companies prosper, PMA is working to encourage young people to seek careers in the produce industry. It has set up a foundation called the Center for Growing Talent to “attract and retain the best talent for the industry.”

“PMA is committed to making the produce and floral industries the best place to work,” says Scott. “We have significant programs that target college students and we’ve had great success bringing them into member companies where they are contributing to growth.” — Neil Moran

Marketing

Chris Veillon

Photo courtesy of Chris Veillon

Photo courtesy of Chris Veillon

Chief marketing officer, Pure Flavor

In a new role with an expanding grower, this marketer conducts a top-down approach to branding.

Chris Veillon, who recently took the position as chief marketing officer for Pure Flavor, sees exciting times ahead for the company and offers some key insights into the future of the produce industry.

Founded in 2003 in Leamington, Ontario, Pure Flavor grows and markets a variety of greenhouse vegetables, including tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and living lettuce grown in the United States, Canada and Mexico. In his new role as CMO, Veillon hopes to take the brand to the next level, in part by taking on specific roles with promotions, advertising, content creation and digital marketing.

“The opportunity to grow with Pure Flavor, not only from a brand and product perspective, but professionally, was something I could not pass up,” Veillon says, citing an upcoming $105 million investment into a 75-acre greenhouse build in Georgia as just one growth opportunity for the brand.

Veillon got his start in marketing in the tourism industry. After 10 years in tourism, he was ready for a change. He says he was contacted “out of the blue” by a produce company that was looking to build a marketing department. Over the last 10 years, he was able to “create, strategize and build” a variety of brands that are developing into household names.

At Pure Flavor, Veillon says he gets to see the company from the 10,000-foot level. He sees opportunities to expand the company’s message, but hasn’t lost sight of the most important thing on consumers’ minds: great taste.

“Flavor drives repeat sales, hands down. Great packaging will attract, but what they bite into is what will determine their next move,” Veillon says. “In a space where there is an S-O-S, or ‘sea of sameness’ as I like to call it, there has to be a unique experience for you to retain that customer.”

As consumers become more savvy, they want to know where their fruits and vegetables come from, Veillon says. “Brands that resonate with consumers are the ones that have a unique value proposition,” he says. “It’s not about smoke and mirrors to get the sale, it is about authenticity to create a customer for life.” — Neil Moran

Sustainability

Photo courtesy of Nathan Kaufman

Photo courtesy of Nathan Kaufman

Nathan Kaufman

Director of living systems, The Perennial

This grower feeds flies to fish to fuel an environmentally friendly farm-to-table experience.

The husband-and-wife restaurateur duo of Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint started Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth before founding The Perennial, a restaurant in San Francisco that sheds light on climate change and practices sustainability. Taking advantage of environmentally friendly food production and service methods such as carbon ranching and offering Kernza, a perennial grain, outdoor farmers and onsite employees do their part. But much of the work takes place across the San Francisco Bay with grower Nathan Kaufman.

As director of living systems, Kaufman runs The Perennial’s roughly 1,000-square-foot greenhouse and 2,000-square-foot outdoor production space in West Oakland. The greenhouse stands out for its highly nontraditional greenhouse crops — everything from turmeric to Australian finger lime to dwarf cardamom to papalo.

“In the year that we had for buildout, there was just so much give and take and discussion,” Kaufman says. “Initially, Anthony and Chris [Kiyuna], the executive chef, hit me with a wish list, and there would be stuff like jackfruit on there. I’m like, ‘Ok, guys. We’re not in Southeast Asia, and that’s going to take like 40 years for me to start getting fruit on it. That’s an 80-foot-tall tree, guys.’”

To boost sustainability efforts, Kaufman takes leftover food prep that the back of house staff has divided into two categories (the first being produce and the second being being meat, dairy and bread) and composts it. He uses worms to break down the produce and black soldier flies to break down the meat, dairy and bread. In turn, he feeds the fly larva to sturgeon and catfish that power aquaponic systems.

Kaufman is also executive director of The Perennial's nonprofit, the Perennial Farming Initiative, which educates others on sustainable efforts. But not every diner wants to hear about environmentalism while eating dinner. “Sometimes if you’re just getting a cocktail after work and you just want a great environment, hey, that’s totally fine by me,” he says. “For us, just by supporting us with your dollar, you’re voting with your buck. In that way, we can really engage with folks wherever they’re at.” — Patrick Williams

Leadership

Dr. Roberta Cook,

Photo courtesy of Dr. Roberta Cook

Photo courtesy of Dr. Roberta Cook

Director, Village Farms

A longtime academic economist now advises an industry-leading grower.

After 31 years working at University of California, Davis, Dr. Roberta Cook remains as passionate about the produce industry as when she was still a graduate student at Michigan State University.

“In my career at UC Davis, I was tasked with looking at all the key supply and demand trends affecting markets for fresh produce in California,” says Cook, who held the position of extension economist in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics. She is now on the board of directors at Village Farms and Ocean Mist Farms.

Her research and consultations have allowed her to gain key insights into the trends affecting the produce industry — information that should be valuable to both growers and retailers. Cook says consumers became very value-conscious during the recession and haven’t reverted to earlier buying practices, making competitive pricing even more important for retailers, which puts pressure on suppliers.

One of the biggest trends she sees affecting the industry, which will most likely continue for years to come is “channel blurring,” or the advent of more and more types of competing retail outlets for fresh produce, beyond the conventional supermarket of old.

“From Walmart Supercenters to club stores, dollar stores, convenience stores, drug stores, online sales and limited assortment stores, such as Aldi and Trader Joe’s, the proliferation of store formats is still expanding,” Cook says. — Neil Moran

Education

Stephen Ritz

Photo courtesy of Stephen Ritz

Photo courtesy of Stephen Ritz

Founder, Green Bronx Machine

A teacher with a big heart incorporates indoor ag into the classroom.

A teacher with more than 30 years of experience, Stephen Ritz embraced project-based learning decades ago through environmental restoration and community gardening with over-age, under-credited students. Now, the founder of Green Bronx Machine, a native of New York City’s northernmost borough, grows produce in Tower Gardens with primary school age children in the National, Health, Wellness & Learning Center at Community School 55.

In his lessons, Ritz aligns food production with academic standards, and his students are excited to take part. “We took targeted students that had 40 percent attendance and moved them to 93 percent attendance and a 100 percent graduation rate,” Ritz says. “But beyond that — and realize that we are in the poorest congressional district in America, in the least healthy county in New York State, with the highest percentage of homeless and transitional children in New York City — we have record attendance at this school.”

A 2015 Global Teacher Prize Top Ten finalist, Ritz — who is recognizable by his bowties, cheese hat and noticeably trimmer frame than when he carried 300 pounds in the early days of Green Bronx Machine — has visited the White House and worked in his classroom with former White House chef William Yosses. Ritz has also met Pope Francis, former President Bill Clinton, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and journalist Fareed Zakaria, among other influential public figures and celebrities. Author Michael Pollan featured Ritz in his book “In Defense of Food.” In May 2017, Ritz released his own book, “The Power of a Plant,” which details the path he took to champion for students to become more engaged in learning, make healthier diet decisions and contribute to society in a meaningful way.

When it comes to production output, Ritz and his students don’t skimp. They grow enough food indoors to send 100 bags of groceries home with students weekly. In addition to indoor production, they grow about 5,000 plants outdoors. Their 37 crops include gourmet lettuces, a variety of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, pickles, collard greens, squash, cucumbers, celery, oregano, basil, nasturtiums, corn, string beans and cilantro. And the food doesn’t go to waste. In partnership with Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, Ritz and his students are growing about 5,000 pounds of produce for food-insecure, recovering cancer patients in the Bronx.

As a full-time volunteer, Ritz doesn’t expect payment for his work. This, he says, is to “step apart from” the system in order to fix it. “We need to go from a world that once loved people and used things and now kind of loves things and uses people — we’ve got to get back to our roots, literally,” he says. “Imagine if we refreshed our soil and our farmers the way we took care of our precious laptop screens. The world would be a better place. To me, this is about dignity and respect, growing something greater. Yes, I grow food, but really what we grow is hope and opportunity. I like to say I grow vegetables, but my vegetables grow students, schools and resilient communities and give everybody a chance to sit at the table.” — Patrick Williams

Research

Dr. Kevin Folta,

Professor and chairman, University of Florida’s IFAS Extension

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Kevin Folta

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Kevin Folta

This professor pushes the development of horticultural lighting forward by pursuing unique research projects.

Dr. Kevin Folta grew up knowing that science, in some way, would be part of his career. When he started college at Northern Illinois University, he studied DNA and genetics. But as he interned at different companies as an undergrad, he developed a passion for agriculture and decided to get his graduate degree in biology, and then a Ph.D. in molecular biology, to apply to agriculture research.

In 2002, Folta moved to the University of Florida, where he currently serves as a professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department. It was at UF where began working on the type of research he’s best known for — LED lighting, and how it can be used to improve plant growth

“That’s where it all came together,” he says.

Folta’s research explores the relationship between lights and plants and specifically how growers can use LED lighting to “talk” to plants. According to his research, a grower can use a specific light color — red, for example — to communicate specific instructions to a plant. This level of precision, in theory, would allow growers to get specific results from each plant in the greenhouse. That could even mean using a specific light color to draw out a specific flavor profile from a crop in the greenhouse.

“You’ve got something people need, something people want and something that makes money for the people who grow it and supply it,” he says.

In addition to his research, Folta also co-hosts podcast called “Talking Biotech” (talkingbiotechpodcast.com) and does it for the same reason he does his research: He loves it. “My one hobby is recording a podcast,” Folta, who records on Saturdays as early as 4 a.m., says. “So that’s why I do it.” — Chris Manning

To hear more from the People in Produce, be sure to check out The Hort Report podcast. Past guests include Dr. Gary Stutte, Dr. Kevin Folta and Dr. Jill Calabro. There is also coverage of industry events attended by the Produce Grower staff such as United Fresh and Indoor Ag-Con. You can find all of the podcasts at bit.ly/2fA8Umr and/or on iTunes at bit.ly/hortreportpodcast 

Community Outreach

Photo courtesy of Mario Cambardella

Photo courtesy of Mario Cambardella

Mario Cambardella

Director of urban agriculture, Atlanta

A career adjustment lead Cambardella towards his current role in shaping urban agriculture in Atlanta.

After graduating college, Mario Cambardella did what most people do after college: look for a job, secure a job and then work towards advancements. For Cambardella, who studied landscape design at the University of Georgia, that meant working at a company called Valley Crest as a designer and project manager for landscape developments in the Atlanta area.

But four years into his career, UGA created a new master’s program called “Environmental Planning and Design,” and the program’s dean recruited him personally for the program. While there, he completed that program, met his future wife, decided to stick around while she finished law school and completed a second master’s in landscape design while starting his own business, Urban Agriculture, which combined his design skills and new interest in sustainable city planning. After graduation, he turned that business into a full-time career for four years.

That business lead him to be hired by the city of Atlanta in 2015, where he now works for the city as the director of urban agriculture. There, he plays a key role in developing “Aglanta,” a digital food hub for Atlanta residents. That also includes the Aglanta Conference, which had 272 attendees in 2017, its first year, and the Aglanta Forum, an annual event where residents can learn about sustainability and healthy eating. (Editor's note: To learn more about the Aglanta Conference, listen to Previewing Aglanta” here)

“Developing urban agriculture spaces within our city is, I think, a dream job,” Cambardella says. — Chris Manning

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