Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Carl Fields of Monterey Mushrooms.
Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Produce Business.
By Don Harris, former VP of Produce at Safeway and Wild Oats [Editor’s Note: unlike other profiles of our Vanguards, written by staff and contributing editors, Don Harris interacted directly with Carl Fields and relates some of his own observations and personal experiences in this article.]
Carl Fields brought a unique and diversified portfolio of skills and talents to the produce industry. With a strong educational background (double BS degrees at U.C. Irvine and a Master’s Degree in Management at Yale) as well as diversified management background with Dart Industries, AMFAC Foods and Wells Fargo, Carl quickly fell in love with the produce industry’s diversity, energy, and progressive spirit.
Carl joined the produce industry with Monterey Mushrooms and quickly rose to the office of Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer. In this position, he formulated and developed key initiatives and programs that elevated the acceptance and promotion of the mushroom category.
“Carl was a true innovator,” recalls Shah Kazemi, CEO and President of Monterrey Mushroom, Watsonville, CA. “He helped our industry introduce many new products including sliced mushrooms, whole Portobellas and Baby Bella mushrooms, as well as new packaging procedures and new, aggressive promotional activity that helped to grow our category.” Carl’s influence on the mushroom category was felt across the nation and helped to provide the impetus for retailers to expand the category. Mr. Kazemi also recalls, “His efforts and new directions were adopted by the entire mushroom industry and drove the category growth”.
Carl’s influence wasn’t restricted to only the mushroom industry. He shared his passion and creativity with the entire industry as he served on PMA boards, the Produce for Better Health Foundation, and other industry organizations to move the industry forward and provide solutions for challenges facing the entire industry.
He also shared freely of his time to help other individuals in the industry. Bruce Knobeloch, present V.P. of Marketing and Product Development at Monterey Mushroom, and a former retailer at Schnucks Markets, remembers, “I interacted with him as a customer and fellow board member at PMA. He was a great resource for me, and he didn’t have to be. Carl provided me with insights into the industry, and he enjoyed mentoring and providing thought-leadership to a lot of people.”
Carl’s mentorship and educational focus were legendary in the industry as he always sought to bring the best qualified people into the industry, whether they had a produce background or not. He was always available to provide input and guidance that would be of assistance in addressing any challenges the industry may have faced. His activities on the various boards were instrumental in moving the industry forward on a sensible course during a time of rapid expansion and, in some cases, runaway growth. He did this by fostering a culture of education and cooperation among all aspects of the industry.
His calm demeanor and inclusive conversation were always welcome in any industry discussion and helped to keep everyone involved focused on the challenge at hand. Carl had a true and intense passion for all things Produce. Knobeloch remembers, “Carl’s incredible curiosity about the produce industry was contagious. Carl was especially active in acclimating newcomers to the produce industry and assimilating them into the industries direction and culture”.
Every time the industry asked Carl for his help to address an industry issue, he was always ready to participate and contribute. Carl’s ability to readily sacrifice and give of his time to help anyone person or any part of the industry was a credit to his nature and to the drive he had for continued improvement in overall excellence throughout the industry and all its parts.
While he was very active on the educational committees of PMA and helped to develop various educational programs, one of his greatest achievements was the establishment, along with Mr. Kazemi, of a scholarship program at Monterey Mushroom to offer opportunities for the employees of the company as well as other talented individuals in the local area to further their education. Now named in his honor, this is his continuing legacy to his company, the industry, and those in the local area seeking educational opportunity.
During a time when the industry was steeped in tradition and historically had always looked within its own members to obtain talent in order to move the industry forward, Carl was a voice for the incorporation of differing viewpoints and talents from outside the industry. His encouragement of the addition of “new blood” to the industry was instrumental in widening the horizons of opportunity and helping to accelerate the momentum toward innovation and change. As a contribution to industry progress, this action was underappreciated and questioned in the beginning, but, in retrospect, is now one of the most viable and important changes to recruiting talent, which allowed the industry to move forward.
In addition to all his accomplishments, Carl was a caring and compassionate man. He was never too busy to offer encouragement and congratulations to others in the industry for their accomplishments. Knobeloch remembers, “I once received a major award in the industry, and Carl was the first to convey his congratulations on this major accomplishment, but he reminded me to continue to think of the future but take time to celebrate and enjoy this accomplishment.” His caring spirit and overriding willingness to assist, mentor, and educate anyone within the industry is something that everyone who knew him remembers fondly.
It was this unique combination of passion, curiosity, and caring that marked Carl’s career and endeared him to all who had the opportunity to work with him and search for common ground to drive the success of the produce industry. While Carl left us far too soon, his legacy remains with the industry today in the success and continued growth of all the individuals he mentored and helped to develop.