Student program: Produce industry leaders help spark interest

BY JOYCE REINGOLD, Produce Business

Jim Prevor and Don Harris

Jim Prevor and Don Harris (right) of Harris Consulting Solutions with students

Away from the bustle of the exhibition floor, industry leaders spent two hours sharing their decades of hard-won experience with a rapt audience of college students considering careers that may lead to produce.

“I’m honored that all of you have taken the time, at what I know is a busy time with finals going on, to be part of our show this year,” said Jim Prevor, co-founder and editor-in-chief of PRODUCE BUSINESS, addressing a room full of more than 30 ag school students. “The purpose of this student program, which we’ve been running for eight years, is to give you a chance to learn about the opportunities that might exist for you in this wonderful industry.”

Students and faculty participating in the education outreach program hailed from Cornell University, Rutgers University, Newcastle University, University of Delaware, St. Joseph’s University, University of Georgia and University of Connecticut.

Mentors included Tim York, president, Markon Cooperative; Don Harris, president, Harris Consulting Solutions; Reggie Griffin, Reggie Griffin Strategies; Dick Spezzano, Spezzano Consulting Services; and Hugo Vermeulen, managing director, Cool Fresh International.

“I think there are many opportunities for young, bright minds to enter the business,” said Griffin. “I would advise you to take a placement in a produce company; and I think you will know in a day or so if it suits you.”

Harris, a self-described “produce brat,” outlined his diversity of experience — from major supermarket chains to Feeding America to the U.S. Agency for International Development. “You constantly remember that you always have a different challenge every day. It makes it so fulfilling to solve those problems every day.”

Vermeulen, “the rookie” of the panel, told the students how after four years of selling office furniture he knew he needed to be in a “more dynamic environment.” He found it in the produce business, at a small firm that imported Florida grapefruit. Today, he’s at the helm of the Netherlands-based company that sources and markets fruit globally. “We are constantly adjusting ourselves to the needs and wishes of our clients.”

Mike Detlet, a student at St. Joseph’s University, asked the panel about e-commerce and the opportunities and challenges it presents to the produce industry.
“A significant number of companies are getting into e-commerce,” said Spezzano. “Instacart is the biggest one. They take that off of your back as a retailer; they have that model. If brick-and-mortar stores are going to survive, they have to figure out the internet, too. And they’re figuring it out.”

“The industry assumed when first confronting this issue that consumers would be very hesitant to buy fresh produce online,” added Prevor. “They are so careful in the store. You see people shaking melons and pineapples. The latest research shows people have very little confidence in their own abilities to select a ripe melon or pineapple and will outsource that to experts if they’re persuaded they’ll get what they want.”

At the session’s end, McKenna Johnson, a junior at the University of Georgia, said she felt “so incredibly blessed” to participate in the afternoon exchange. “To be able to speak to people like them, it’s mind-blowing.”

“Whatever your passion is,” said Spezzano, “there’s a spot for you in our business.”