2020 Produce Business 40 Under Forty Award Winner: Thomas Wheelus

Age: 30
National Account Manager
Taylor Farms
Salinas, CA

Wheelus’ produce career started right out of high school when he was offered an opportunity to work in a quality assurance/quality control position with Custom Produce (Parlier, CA) while taking classes at the local junior college and online. His time in the cooler then transitioned into the sales and accounting office. After several years with the Custom produce team he was offered a sales job with Mann Packing of Salinas. His focus was the Canadian, and primarily retail market where he demonstrated a keen understanding of the unique ethnic markets throughout the provinces and the impact on the company’s product sets. After three and a half years at Mann, he was approached by Taylor Farms and moved to his current position. He now manages some of Taylor Farms’ largest national accounts and has created substantial sales growth. He has also worked hand-in-hand with engineers to create manufacturing efficiencies in the company’s salad plant.

Hobbies: Competitive waterskiing, Mountain biking, Hot rods and motorcycles, Native Sons of the Golden West and the Elks Lodge

Personal: Married, one son and another son on the way

Motto in life: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

Q: What do you know now you wish you knew when you first started your career?
Adapt to change, and be the leader who drives that change. Our industry is constantly evolving on nearly every front. As an industry we learned to adapt to market changes driven by the media, meet and exceed government requirements on product testing (with a focus recently on water practices) and as a member of the Taylor team we were at the forefront of these changes to raise the bar for our competitors. Another example of adaption to change related to labor challenges, is the Taylor Farms team has been a leader in automation. This involves adapting skillsets to the ever changing jobs throughout the company as we deploy multiple automated machines both in the fields and at the plant.

Q: What industry improvements would you like to see?
I believe our industry needs a more current and active governing body. I would like to see our industry leaders come together to form a team which truly raises the bar on all fronts — automation, food safety and consumer awareness. In order for the produce industry to combat the challenges we face every day having a common goal and certain raised bars to strive for will ensure consumers can enjoy safe products with little doubt of how it was grown, or what practices were used to harvest, wash or process the foods they enjoy.

Q: What do you think the industry can do to promote more produce consumption?
If our industry can teach the importance of healthy eating to the youth of America at the school level, we can likely improve their overall lifestyle at home, and as they grow. The resources to promote healthy eating continue to be readily available, especially when utilizing social media platforms. It is our responsibility as an industry to ensure we are supplying recipes and the items consumers want to enjoy.

Q: What do you see as the most critical “hot button” issue facing the industry in the next decade?
Food safety will remain at the top of the list until every company can isolate, mitigate, and eliminate foodborne illnesses from fresh produce. With recent events in the news and social media around illnesses tied to produce, the pressure on our industry to eliminate these issues is at an all-time high. The spinach outbreak in 2006 was truly the pivotal event that changed the emphasis on the industry’s food safety practices. Until our industry can provide a true kill step, I believe there will remain a heavy emphasis on food safety procedures.