Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor
Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor

This year’s installment of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s future leaders program aims for a California twist.

This fall marks the third year of the Emerging Leader Development Program that helps cultivate future leaders for the Sunshine State’s produce industry.

Earlier groups toured California production regions and the next class, which begins at the Sept. 22-25 FFVA convention in Amelia Island, Fla., plans to involve some of its California peers in a Florida visit.

Members of the Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers’ Future Volunteer Leaders program plan to tour Florida production regions in late January alongside the dozen Florida young people involved in the leadership program.

In June, members of the second Florida class toured Salinas Valley production operations including Tanimura & Antle and Mann Packing Co. Inc.

The group learned more about crops most weren’t that familiar with, including garlic and lettuce, said Sonia Tighe, executive director of the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, which administers the leadership program.

The infusion of their California peers, who are in that program’s second class, should help further broaden the Floridians’ knowledge as they learn more about other parts of the produce industry, she said.

“If I had a chance when I was younger to mix and mingle with someone from California and had those relationships to carry forward into my career, how incredible would that have been?” Tighe said.

“I know at the places the class visited (in Florida), the people in those operations were very encouraged by the energy, the potential and the caliber of young professionals they see that are invested in this industry.”

Gaining perspective

The mix of the class’s ages and geographies and the trip to California opened the eyes of Ian Bessell, the Wellington, Fla.-based director of business development of food safety for produce for Henderson, Colo., food safety material supplier Birko.

“There was a perception we would go to California and it would be dramatically different from Florida,” Bessell said.

“In some ways it is but in other ways it wasn’t. A lot of the issues are similar as people talked about water, labor, food safety concerns, land use and regulatory issues. The crops, soil type and weather may be different, but the producers there feel a lot of the same pressures.”

Derek Orsenigo, production manager with Orsenigo Farms Inc. and Growers Management in Belle Glade, Fla., said talking with the grower-shippers at the 15 California operations the group visited impressed the class.

“The scale there’s so much bigger. It makes Florida look small,” Orsenigo said.

“They’re the biggest player and politically, they’re ahead of the curve. We caught a glimpse of what may soon trickle over to the rest of the country in terms of labor and environmental impacts, good, bad and otherwise.”

Networking benefits proved most valuable for Amber Kosinsky, director of marketing for Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla.

“Some of our group are on the farm all day while others are in offices working in research and ag finance, so you can sometimes get tunnel vision,” Kosinsky said.

Group members learned how instrumental produce is across the state at all levels.

While competitors, they work in the same business through different roles in their companies.

The valuable connections and friendships they’ve made through the yearlong experience should help them in their own operations.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.