Tom Tjerandsen’s journey to the fresh produce industry began in the land of wheat.

Tjerandsen, 70, North American managing director for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, grew up in Kansas, attending elementary and middle school in Manhattan.

His high school years were split between New York and Chicago. After earning an undergraduate degree at Hobart College in upstate New York and serving a two-year stint in the Army, Tjerandsen switched coasts, enrolling in an MBA program at San Francisco State.

“I had every intention of bringing the Big Apple to its knees” after graduation, Tjerandsen said, but it didn’t take long for him to feel the pull of California.

While at San Francisco State, Tjerandsen won an internship at a local advertising agency. That led to a job at another agency, one of whose clients was a man named Barney McClure, a produce veteran who would later become Tjerandsen’s business partner.

Tjerandsen held a variety of jobs at advertising agencies, working mostly on food accounts and in the marketing departments of a coffee company and of Tri-Valley Growers, a specialist in canned fruit.

While at Tri-Valley, Tjerandsen noticed the huge amount of interest among produce industry advisory boards in doing more to help growers move their products.

“I thought it was an area where I could help,” he said.

The clients at an agency Tjerandsen ran in the mid-1980s included trade groups representing California apricots, Hawaiian papayas and other commodities.

It was at this point in his career that McClure re-entered Tjerandsen’s life. McClure had been hired by the Chilean fruit industry as a consultant, and he in turn hired Tjerandsen’s agency.

That arrangement lasted four years, after which Tjerandsen and McClure chose to strike out on their own.

“Barney and I decided it would be entertaining to form an agency specializing in the promotion of produce.”

San Francisco-based McClure and Tjerandsen went on to establish many of the marketing programs that propelled the Chilean produce industry to the success it enjoys today.

The firm also served as headquarters of the California Fresh Apricot Council and the Pomegranate Council, provided marketing support for California asparagus and papaya and developed programs for Sun-Maid Growers of California, Kingsburg Orchards and Del Monte’s canning division.

One of Tjerandsen’s biggest successes occurred in the prune industry in the early ‘90s. He had the idea of creating “fiber fairs” at grocery stores — displays where prunes were sold alongside cereals and other high-fiber foods.

Retailers who participated received cash prizes of up to $500.

“We told everyone who sent in an entry that they would get a check,” he said.

Most of the checks were for $5, to go with a handful of $50 checks and a very few $500 ones. But the buzz about winning $500 sent participation through the roof. Between 8,000 and 15,000 retailers participated in each of the four years the promotion ran, and the results were impressive.

“The sales increases were astonishing, and growers had despaired of that ever happening,” he said.

After McClure died in 1996, Tjerandsen kept the company name, in part in tribute to his partner and mentor, in part because the name McClure was much easier to remember than Tjerandsen.

In 2004, Tjerandsen was named interim director of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association. Before long, he assumed the permanent title of North American marketing manager.

Looking back, Tjerandsen said he’s fortunate to have chosen an industry full of challenges and interest, and one that’s “a collecting place for a lot of very nice people.”

He said he’s grateful to have worked with and learned from people like Gene Stokes, Paul Yoder, Mark Bagley, Jim Halloran, Ken Snyder, David Simonian and Ronald Bown.

Looking ahead, Tjerandsen is excited about continuing to work on behalf of Chile’s growers, and about his work for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, the International Federation for Produce Standards and other organizations.

“There are a lot of very bright people developing new ways of moving perishable products in ways that ensure freshness, quality and safety,” Tjerandsen said. “It’s very entertaining and gratifying.”