The United States has the largest economy in the world and has retained this impressive position since 1871. The U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018 amounted to $20.58 trillion and is only expected to increase in the coming years, with a GDP forecast to exceed nearly $25 trillion in 2024. For comparison, the GDP of China (which ranks as the second-largest economy in the world) reached only $10.43 trillion U.S. dollars in 2018.
Though America holds the highest percentage of global wealth, people do not always give much thought to the leading industries—or the leaders behind these industries—that earn the substantial revenue that drives the U.S. economy. This includes agriculture, which produced $388.5 billion in agricultural products in 2017 and contributed over $159 billion in export sales to the U.S. economy in 2018.
Many leaders throughout agriculture have had a significant impact on the success of the industry; today, there are countless pioneers who are leading the way in implementing change to help agriculture flourish in the 21st century and beyond. Here are 12 influencers who are taking the lead in solving issues of concern for our nation’s farmers and ranchers, rural Americans and consumers. These individuals represent only a small sample of the hundreds of agricultural leaders who are shaping solutions to challenges threatening the produce industry’s growth and profitability.
Joe Del Bosque: Del Bosque was among the first to utilize social media as a strategy for advocating for water on California farms dating back to the historic drought in 2009. Over the years, his Twitter handle @westsidefarmer has become a source for details on the importance of water deliveries to San Joaquin Valley growers and beyond. In 2014, he tweeted an invitation to President Obama to visit his fallowed fields: “President @BarackObama, I humbly invite you to Del Bosque Farms for a discussion on the effect of the drought on California and its people.” A week later, Del Bosque was giving President Obama and California Governor Jerry Brown an in-depth tour around his farm, sharing the detrimental impact the water shortages were having on California agriculture. Today, Del Bosque continues to raise awareness about water deliveries to California farms at rallies or meetings in Sacramento and Washington D.C., and invites media and legislators to Del Bosque Farms to speak about agriculture’s need for a reliable water supply.
Steve Patricio: In the mid-1990s, Steve Patricio and his mentor, Jess Telles, launched an orientation program for agribusinesses that focused exclusively on water rights. This was a first for the industry and something that was much needed. In addition to helping farmers understand their rights to water, Patricio has spent countless hours throughout the years in lobbying meetings, press conferences and water debates advocating for a sustainable supply of water for farmers to grow the food that feeds the state, nation and world. In fact, while he was Western Growers (WG) chairman, he was asked to join then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the San Luis Reservoir to call attention to the need for more surface water storage and stress the need for a comprehensive water solution.
Joe Pezzini: Pezzini, president and CEO of Ocean Mist Farms, played an integral role in rebuilding the industry after the E. coli outbreak in spinach in 2006. He served as the first chairman of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA) and was one of the people most responsible for creating this unprecedented organization. During the crisis, Pezzini, along with other industry advocates such as WG, worked with regulators to learn what steps needed to be taken to get the leafy greens industry back in business. The industry took it upon itself to raise the bar for food safety practices and created the LGMA, which has since been on the leading edge of science-based food safety standards.
Ron Ratto: Over the years, Ron Ratto has implemented progressive farming practices and invested in the latest technological advancements to enhance food safety at Ratto Bros. This includes a product recall program designed to trace back, trace forward and, if necessary, recall any products that may have food safety concerns from the farm or the packinghouse, as well as an Integrated Pest Management Program to prevent food adulteration by pests or pesticides. Additionally, Ratto has made food safety the foundation of his workforce, ensuring that all employees—beyond the Quality Assurance/Food Safety Team—have quality-related responsibilities.
Carmen Ponce: Ponce, who currently serves as the vice president and general counsel of labor at Tanimura & Antle, is an advocate for finding solutions to the chronic labor shortage that is jeopardizing the future of agriculture in California, Arizona, and across the country. She works closely with numerous organizations to share her knowledge about the H-2A program including compliance, best practices and possible long-term solutions for easing the cumbersome process. In addition to managing all employment related legal matters at T&A, she has been involved with numerous boards dedicated to improving labor relations. These include the Center for Community Advocacy—an organization that provides education, orientation and legal support to farmworkers—and WG’s Labor Committee.
Sonny Rodriguez: Joseph Rodriguez (Sonny) actively touts the need for Congress to pass immigration reform legislation, including a guest worker program for agriculture, which would provide the industry with a reliable, legal source of labor to provide the nation’s food supply. In addition to being vocal on the need for agricultural immigration reform, he serves as president/CEO of Arizona-based The Growers Company, a farm labor contractor that provides hundreds of seasonal workers to work vegetable fields in Arizona and California, from thinning and weeding to harvesting the crops.
Tom Mulholland: Mulholland is perfecting the use of beneficial insects and integrated pest management to reduce dependency on pesticides. He has built a large-scale insectary that houses millions of beneficial insects, Aphytis melinus; these insects, which are available to the industry, are one weapon used to protect citrus trees from the California Red Scale pest while reducing the amount of chemicals and pesticides used in orchards.
Casey Houweling: Houweling is dedicated to delivering a full complement of tomatoes, while constantly innovating to reduce its environmental footprint. Houweling’s Group has three cogeneration engine rooms, which generate electricity so the farm can utilize waste to promote the growth of tomato plants in their greenhouses. Each engine generates 4.3 megawatts of electricity and any electricity that exceeds Houweling Group’s needs is exported to the grid. The cogeneration system captures heat in water and circulates what is needed in the greenhouses; the exhaust gas is cleaned up in the catalytic converter process and then inserted into the greenhouses as food grade CO2.
Frank Maconachy: For nearly three decades, Maconachy has guided Ramsay Highlander Inc. to become a world-renowned manufacturer of specialized harvesting aids for the specialty crop industry. He oversees all operations of Ramsay Highlander, including design and manufacturing of their current machinery line and ongoing R&D, and works closely with fresh produce farmers on new machine designs that specialize in self-propelled harvesting systems. Through Maconachy’s leadership, Ramsay Highlander now stands at the forefront of labor-assisting harvest technologies.
Brian Antle: Antle was the visionary who brought PlantTape—an automated transplanting system—from Spain to the United States in 2014 for technical development and commercialization. This revolutionary machine allows farmers to plant more acres per day. With PlantTape, growers can plant 20 acres a day using three people—compared to 10 acres per day with 16 people using traditional transplanting methods—as well as use 25 percent less fertilizer, 20 percent less water and 8 percent less pesticides on the crop—all while increasing yields.
Harold McClarty: McClarty, CEO at HMC Farms, has been a long-time advocate for market access and competiveness both domestically and internationally. In addition to serving as chairman for WG’s International Trade/Trade Practices Committee, he is also the former chairman of the California Fresh Fruit Association and its Marketing Committee where he played an integral role in administering the Stone Fruit Mexico Export Program. Additionally, in 2013, HMC Farms was the first to send California peaches and nectarines to Australia. “For years, HMC Farms has worked closely with Marcy Martin of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, as well as U.S. and Australian government agencies, so that the California stone fruit industry would be able to ship their product to a country previously unavailable,” said McClarty, in a Growing Produce article.
Steve Barnard: In addition to being founder of Mission Produce—the largest packer, shipper, and exporter of fresh avocados in the world—Barnard has made waves in opening up international markets for avocados. Founded only 36 years ago, Mission Produce has impressively expanded its operations to Chile, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, Canada, China and Europe. Earlier this year, Mission Produce announced plans to significantly increase its avocado production in Columbia over the next two years. Barnard’s goal is to plant an additional 1,000-1,500 hectares of avocado trees in Colombia, which would supply the farm’s domestic and international markets such as the United States and Europe.
Each of these leaders have not only positively impacted their companies, but have helped bring about significant changes in the industry. The vision and innovation of these individuals, as well as countless others within WG’s membership, will ensure the continued success of the fresh produce industry into the coming decades.