Hannah Caswell was one of the first graduates of the Eastern Produce Council's Leadership Program. ( AeroFarms )

Hannah Caswell grew up in Maine, where she always appreciated the natural world outdoors. She studied environmental science in college and volunteered at community gardens.

Now Caswell is 26 and working at her first job in the produce industry as associate sales and marketing manager at AeroFarms, Newark, N.J. — a prime example of the students who organizers wanted in the inaugural class of the Eastern Produce Council Leadership Program.

Fourteen students graduated at the keynote breakfast, part of the New York Produce Show and Conference Dec. 10-13. The council is the show’s cofounder.

“I think people should do it if they’re interested in learning about the broader industry. Now I understand more what a lot of these companies do and how they relate to my job,” said Caswell, an associate sales and marketing manager for AeroFarms in Newark, N.J. She started in January 2016.

The new, yearlong leadership program is a professional development experience for produce professionals with fewer than 10 years in the industry. The goal is to help them gain knowledge from both classroom and field experience.

The students had to apply and be accepted into the program, which requires participation in activities throughout the year. In March, Caswell and her classmates toured a grower and packer tied to a port.

“We saw where they bring in international produce like pineapple, avocados and mangoes. It was interesting to see the large magnitude of scale,” Caswell said.

A month later, professor Wes Kline of Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station led a seminar on the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Then Rutgers partnered with the program again in June and September with field and classroom time at the university’s Cream Ridge and Snyder research farms. Students learned more about management skills.

They saw first-hand how smaller farms are turning to agritourism, such as U-picks, onsite special events, markets and restaurants.

The final pre-graduation event was the Dec. 10 Foundational Excellence Conference at the New York Hilton, part of the New York Produce Show.

“We’ve been talking about this for probably the last four years, developing the program, discussing it with retailers and farms,” said Marianne Santo, co-chairwoman of the program committee and EPC president.

She’s senior category manager of produce and floral for Wakefern Food Corp., Keasbey, N.J.

The program was great because it provided a broad range of ideas, up close, Caswell said.

The other students in the program were from grower-packer companies, importers, supermarket chains and startups. Some of the professionals came from a long line of family in the business while others studied different facets of the industry in school.

“The best part was the networking though, forming relationships with hopefully some of our future customers,” she said.