( Photo by The Packer staff )

A big black pickup truck emerged from the dawn fog on a chilly December morning, pulling into the hotel driveway in upstate New York.

In the driver’s seat was Jim Allen, vice president marketing at New York Apple Sales — the day’s tour guide in Apple Country. 

I hadn’t even been working at The Packer for two months when I joined my colleague on this trip. It was a dizzying introduction to the fresh produce world of sorting, cleaning and packing facilities. 

Now, fewer than two years later, Allen tells me he’s retiring at the end of June.

And while many good professionals in this industry retire, this guy formed my first impression of the industry. His demeanor was calm, professional, warm, knowledgable and passionate about these apples, these growers and everything in between.

Later on this trip, Rena Montedoro, vice president of sales and marketing at Crunch Time Apple Growers, took over the tour-guide reins with her own brand of infectious enthusiasm.

Allen and Montedoro were my first examples of how much relationships matter, especially relationships built over time, using nothing fancy but legwork and face time. 

Video chats are all we have these past two months during quarantine, but I have faith that we will gather again at some point without fear of contagion.

Since that New York apple introduction, I’ve climbed onto outdoor composters at a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania, watched robotic planting at a lettuce greenhouse in Virginia and made soil footprints in a field of fenugreek in New Jersey. 

But obviously, not lately. I want to tour other operations, delve into how other fruit and vegetable businesses work. I want to shake real hands.

Back on that inaugural December tour, I must’ve explored nine facilities and orchards in 1½ days. The packed schedule was a blur of new technical terms, faces, concepts, business structures and partnerships.

It’s invaluable to have someone take you around, introduce you to business leaders, show you the ins and outs.

There’s no way I could’ve felt the excitement of the technology and advancements — from internal defect sorters and robotic bin fillers to controlled atmosphere storage and high density orchard management — without that visit.

I’m sad to see Allen go when I feel like I’m just getting started. I know, however, that there are others to share their experience, their institutional knowledge, their passion. 

Allen gave me a glimmer of how much I had to learn, despite being a mid-career journalist. He shared his joy with me, his depth of understanding. He reminded me why I love what I do.

I ran into Allen at my last conference, SEPC Southern Exposure Feb. 27-29, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

He was standing among pickup trucks in a parking lot outside the Tampa Convention Center. I had just arrived. This time, Allen was a familiar friendly face.

The first one, yet again.

Amy Sowder is The Packer’s Northeast editor. E-mail her at [email protected] 

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