- It was the beginning of a new millennium. The year 2000 had come with no calamities or misfortunes, but it did bring the winds of change.
I had built a small brokerage business that for six years had linked organic produce growers with receivers across the country. Yet a wrinkle was forming in the fabric of my business model that would change my life forever.
It was at Expo East during a frolicking evening with the OTA that I first met Barclay Hope, former President of Albert’s Organics. I had known Albert Lusk since my early days at Community Foods and knew the company had recently been purchased by UNFI.
Indeed the entire organic industry was consolidating. Independent chain stores were being acquired by Whole Foods. Regional co-op distributors were merging with UNFI. Many of my customers were becoming part of something bigger. My business acumen was soon being replaced by corporate buying offices.
When Albert’s Organics showed interest in purchasing my company, I could smell change in the air. I knew that if I didn’t soon become part of something bigger, my presence in the organic ecosystem would vanish like a great lumbering dinosaur. It was then that I decided to become part of Albert’s/UNFI.
Becoming part of something bigger
Those early days in my first corporate settings were enlightening, sometimes challenging and ultimately rewarding. My business skills increased as did a certain savvy of negotiating the landscape of large organizations.
One of my first tasks was to cement the relationship that Alberts had with its grower community. My mission was to go hither and visit our producers, to commune, break bread and negotiate dusty fields and packing sheds across the US.
I forged many a friendship during those years and hold all of those producers deep in my well of gratitude. I learned much about the rigors and perils of organic farming from them.
In a time when the industry was growing at a pace that couldn’t keep up with supplies, those relationships were important but not quite enough. I soon realized we also needed to make strategic purchasing commitments in order to guarantee our supplies.
The contracts we wrote helped many, some in their infancy, to plant with certainty and grow their businesses to unfathomed sizes. Many of these producers are now some of the largest organic fresh produce companies leading the way. Albert’s commitments helped them to become who they are today.
Embracing producers across the globe
After becoming acutely proficient at running forecasts and designing new purchasing systems, I came to a sudden realization. Our largest selling item was bananas, and yet we had absolutely no idea who grew or packed them.
Dole and Del Monte had served us well, but who were the people behind the labels? How could we cultivate our own direct suite of growers in the global south?
Fair Trade USA showed me the way, and I was soon off to Ecuador and Peru visiting Fair Trade banana growers who were striving to enter the International market. They escorted me time and again to meet with small grower co-ops, made up of hundred of producers, who came together to grow and pack our own private-label bananas.
The Fair Trade certification and extra money we paid them went towards social improvements in their communities. Every year I went back, I witnessed running water, schools, clinics and community-run food markets that were paid for by the Fair Trade premium.
Albert’s banana purchases were enhancing the lives of hundreds of people. What a story we could tell!
I must admit this activity also enflamed my budding wanderlust, so after bananas, I was off to Argentina, Chile and New Zealand to secure apple supplies. I even had a stint with hot house peppers in Israel.
Organic agriculture was a means to help farmers all over the world, and I wanted to spread that wealth!
Scott Dennis, former President of Albert’s, gave me another amazing opportunity. I started a separate brokerage company within UNFI that imported organic fresh produce from across the globe.
While friendships were blossoming all over the world, I was learning much about international trade.
Finding my political voice
Business was good and organic was booming in 2012. This was the year that Michael Funk, Co-founder and former Chairman of the Board of UNFI, asked me if I wanted to become an industry advocate for the company.
I was already sitting on the board of the OTA and had begun learning that policy was extremely important for the organic trade. I jumped at the opportunity to change and continue to grow.
I left warehouses of produce in my past and began cultivating my political voice.
It was relatively late in my career, in 2014, when I worked on my very first Farm Bill. I soon came to realize that organic didn’t have its fair share of federal funding. We needed research dollars and support for the National Organic Program to do its job certifying and enforcing the standards. The Farm Bill is a vehicle to drive much funding for organic.
The next Farm Bill is being negotiated as you read this, and I urge everyone to be involved.
Discovering my literary voice
Part of my deliverables as VP of Policy & Industry Relations was to write a company blog. The Organic Matters Blog was created, and my voice emerged – timidly at first – later with great gusto.
I had spent the last 30-some years trading fresh produce, and sure I loved to read, but to write, every week? Well, that was one of the most daunting tasks yet!
The fact that you are reading this now is a testimony to change and growth, because to look back at some of my first posts, well, is a bit unsettling.
Giving back to the Industry
It was shortly after taking my current position that Steve Spinner, CEO of UNFI, decided to formalize our philanthropic giving. The UNFI Foundation was formed, and I was named the Executive Director.
Once again with no real experience creating or running a non-profit, I was thrust into an entrepreneurial dance. This philanthropic venture would bring me great knowledge and a host of new networks and change my worldview.
Today, the UNFI Foundation supports organic projects across the US and has funded over $4 million since its inception.
No end in sight
I will be retiring from UNFI at the end of June. I look back at all the friends I have made, the knowledge I have garnered and the person I have become. They are all because of the opportunities UNFI afforded me over the past 18 years.
I will continue to write this blog and will still have an unbounded passion for the industry that has helped me become the person that I am.
My next chapter has yet to be written, and I intend to fill it with the same opportunity, change and growth as the last 18 years.