Challenge To This Year’s 40-under-Forty (And The Companies Behind Them)

Originally printed in the July 2020 issue of Produce Business.

The development and growth of the produce industry depends upon its ability to attract and retain talented individuals. Over the past few years, there has been an influx of young, dedicated individuals into the industry, and their youth and vigor have helped to drive the industry forward. While this is a very encouraging sign for Produce, upper management often overlooks the need for an influx of new “blood” by insisting that there are always plenty of people to fill the ranks. This is once again another sign that in terms of produce personnel, upper management “just doesn’t get it!”

After reviewing the latest edition of Produce Business’s “40-under-Forty,” I was struck by the overall wide diversity of young people coming into the industry. Their varied backgrounds and their near immediate impact on industry is obvious from the descriptions and their selection to “40-under-Forty”. Upon initial observation this new “class” bodes well for us in the overall health of the industry. They join several previous classes in clearly defining the new, innovative and progressive direction for the industry.

Those of us working and experiencing the nuances of the produce industry for a number of years recognize that the contributions of these “rising stars” will help to provide the next layer to be placed upon the solid foundation constructed by their forebears, and they will move the industry forward. Recognizing the importance of providing the necessary support and guidance for these younger members of the industry is a key responsibility of the older, more established members of the industry. All of us have been fortunate to have had various individuals throughout our careers as mentors to provide wise counsel and experience to assist in our journey through the ever-changing world of Produce.

To help mold and direct younger members of the industry by sharing experience and insights has been a long respected and time-honored tradition in the produce industry. This effort has always helped each person to acclimate to the industry, whether they came from outside the produce world or have a long family history of involvement or exposure. In its truest sense, this action has helped to provide these individuals with the proper insight and knowledge to become innovators and leaders helping to drive the success of the industry. After reviewing this class and those before, it seems to be lacking in one major area… and that is in the retail sector.

One intriguing question that always comes out of each of these classes — and one that should be of great concern to the retail establishment — is which of these talented individuals will become the new leaders of the industry?

While there are certainly representatives in each class of the retail world, I am left with the feeling that there was more that needed to be done and developed by the innovative retailers in the industry to provide the next generation of leaders for the retail trade. This certainly doesn’t mean that the present members of these distinguished classes representing retail are not excellent examples of young “up-and-comers,” but it seems there needs to be an emphasis by retailers to develop and promote more bright young minds to address the upcoming challenges industry faces in the near and future timeframe.

One intriguing question that always comes out of each of these classes — and one that should be of great concern to the retail establishment — is which of these talented individuals will become the new leaders of the industry? These would be the representatives that “take off their company hat” and use their considerable talents and abilities to help direct, promote and advance the welfare and success of the entire produce industry. We all are very much involved in our own business, and that dominates our thinking and drives our careers. However, there are those individuals who can take on the dual responsibility of advancing their own company but also benefiting the good of the entire industry.

The history of Produce is highlighted by the efforts of many individuals from all segments to represent not only their companies but the industry in formulating policy and promoting actions that benefit everyone. These individuals were not afraid to share their talents and time to promote the greater good recognizing the fact that when the industry improves and grows, it provides the opportunity for their own companies as well as others to move forward. It has always been this type of individual who steps forward into these positions of influence and leadership who have carried banners of Produce onward to the next level.

As one looks back on the progress the produce industry has enjoyed over the past 20 to 30 years and reflects on those iconic leaders and then reviews the qualifications of the “next generation,” we can see that there is the talent and leadership necessary to continue the momentum of success built up by previous generations. However, one wonders just who in this “next generation” will be the ones who step forward and take on the mantle of leadership and innovation, and who will be the ones who donate and share their time to move the industry forward.

After all, each one of the 40-under-Forty class has the potential to become “an icon” of the industry just as others that preceded them have done.

Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to