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January 18, 2017

SAMMY DUDA: Ag Work Is All He Ever Wanted to Do

t was not necessarily ordained that Sammy Duda would join the family business when he came of age, “but to be honest, I don’t think I ever thought about doing anything else.  I have such great memories and experiences growing up in the business and interacting with employees and other family members, it is what I always thought I would do.”

The Duda family business dates back 90 years as Sammy’s great grandfather started the agricultural company in 1926 in Florida…at about the same time that the Western Growers Protective Association was getting off the ground on the other side of the country.  Andrew Duda had emigrated to the United States, and specifically Florida, in 1909, with his wife and three sons.  In 1926, he and those three sons—John, Andrew Jr. and Ferdinand—harvested their first crop of celery from 10 acres of land near Oviedo, outside of Orlando,  and launched the firm.

The three sons, which the Duda family refers to as the “Three Seniors,” were the “architects of A. Duda & Sons,” according to Sammy, who is a grandson of John.  “My great-grandfather died in 1956.  I never actually met him.  His three sons all had different skill sets and took care of different parts of the business.”  John was involved in operations while Andrew was the sales and marketing guy and Ferdinand was the farmer.

While the three were the architects of the family business they were also prolific architects of the family tree.  “My grandfather had three sons.  Those three sons produced 14 offspring in my dad’s generation.  All eight men and some of the son-in-laws joined the company.  The 14 produced 44 in the fourth generation, which is my generation.  In the 5th generation, there are more than a 100 and still counting.”  There are currently 132 shareholders of the 100 percent family-owned business

The three seniors produced more than a lot of kids and a farming company.  They built a very diversified company.  Sammy explains that today there are four pillars, or business entities, of the family firm.

There is Duda Farm Fresh Foods, the family’s produce operation and where Sammy serves as vice president.  That entity grows many different crops with celery being its signature item.  But it also grows and markets many other vegetables and fresh citrus.

Duda Ranches is the farming entity involved in several other crops including juice oranges, sugar cane and turf grasses.

The Viera Company is the third entity, which runs the cattle ranch as well as the master-planned community of Viera in Brevard County, Florida.  That company builds between 300 and 400 homes a year and manages the community, which includes the infrastructure.

The 4th pillar is the commercial real estate entity.  Sammy Duda said that A. Duda & Sons, like most large farming operations, is necessarily a real estate company as well.  There is a lot of commercial property owned by the company, which must be bought, sold and managed.

As mentioned earlier, there are a lot of people in the family tree, but there are also lots of jobs.  You don’t have to be an agriculturalist to work for the firm.  Sammy said the company employs people in basically every discipline so no matter what you want to do when you grow up, you can do it for A. Duda & Sons.  However, he did note that as a practical matter, now a majority of the family shareholders are not working within the company.

Sammy’s entry into the firm took a fairly direct route, though he briefly entertained a baseball career while in college.  Sammy was an excellent high school baseball player, who started his college career at the University of Florida not playing baseball.  But he missed the sport so he went back to junior college, put up some good numbers and got recruited by Mississippi State.  The school had a good baseball team and an excellent ag school so he moved to Mississippi.  While majoring in ag economics, Sammy was fortunate enough to play alongside several eventual Major League all-stars (Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Thigpen, Jeff Brantley) and played in the College World Series.  He was very realistic about his own baseball talents and after college came back to Florida to join the family business.

He entered Duda’s rotational program in which he spent the next year moving around various facets of the company for two to three months at a time.  “During that time you were expected to find an area of interest and I did.”

Like his grandfather before him, Sammy enjoyed the operations end of the business.  So after the initial rotation year, he moved to McAllen, Texas, and joined Duda’s vegetable operations.  He remained in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas until 1992, when he moved to Yuma, AZ, to be part of Duda’s burgeoning West Coast vegetable program under the tutelage of Bob Gray.  For the next four years, he split his time between Yuma and Salinas, as production shifted from one area to the next.

“My wife, Amy, and I permanently moved to the Salinas area in 1996 and we’ve been here ever since,” he said, noting that the couple has a pretty impressive memento from each of his major Duda stops.  “We had three kids in three and a half years in three different locations.  Mary Beth, who is 25, was born in McAllen; Samantha, who is 23, was born in Yuma; and Jackson, who is 21, was born in Monterey.”

His two older kids graduated from college and are now living and working in Seattle, and his youngest is an ag economics major at the University of Arizona.  Sammy has no expectations that they will join the company firm but the opportunity is there.  “Either way, I think it is great they go out on their own and do something else first.  I didn’t do that, but I do think it’s a good idea.”

Though born in Florida and cutting his produce eyeteeth in Texas, Sammy is very happy to have landed on the West Coast.  “I don’t want to slight Florida or Texas but, to use a baseball analogy, California is the Major Leagues.  It didn’t take much convincing to move out here.”

He said the top vegetable companies in the country are in California, most of which are headquartered in the Salinas Valley.  “The clout and stature that exists in this community is beyond compare,” he said.

He added that the innovation that takes place on the West Coast is also top notch and, to his thinking, it is the epicenter of the vegetable supply business.  For many years, and even to this day, he enjoys the challenge of living up to the standards set in the community.  “I had to prove if I was any good.  Am I legitimate?  This is where you have to do it.”

Duda believes that the competition makes every company better, and makes the individuals strive for the top.  When he was in Yuma, and ensconced in operations, he still made the time to go to the Produce Marketing Association conventions in Anaheim and San Diego to learn more about the business.  Marketing wasn’t his responsibility, but he wanted to be more well-rounded and have a more complete produce education.  He believes it was time very well spent.

He has changed positions and moved up the ladder attaining his current slot in 2010 as vice president and general manager of western vegetable operations for Duda Farm Fresh Foods as well as a corporate vice president for A. Duda & Sons.  His duties also include oversight for the specialty citrus operation in Visalia, California.  He also serves on the board of the company as one of the six family members—two from each of the three branches of the family—on the 10-member board.  The position is a one-year term and is an elected post.  He has sat on that board since 2011, being elected each year by his branch of the family, which are the descendants of John Duda.  Sammy said the majority of the shareholders are no longer employees of the company so the position on the board requires representing the interests of all family members, whether they are directly involved in agriculture or not.  He considers it an honor to be elected each year, and said it is not a rubber stamp election.  “Last year five of us ran for the two positions (representing the “John” branch).”

When Sammy talks about Duda Farm Fresh Foods, he leads with the company’s main crop.  Celery was first grown by his great grandfather more than 90 years ago and it is still the firm’s signature crop.  The Salinas operation manages about 11,000 acres of vegetables in six states with celery being the top volume item.  “We employ three full-time Ph.D.s working on new varieties.  We have 30 patented varieties and more celery germplasm than any company in the world.  We consider ourselves the world leader in celery.”

The company also produces a fair amount of iceberg lettuce, romaine, leafy green items, broccoli, cauliflower and other assorted vegetable crops.  In its citrus operation it has Meyer lemons, regular lemons, and mandarins, as well as navel oranges.

Duda the firm got involved in Western Growers as a way of paying its respects to the West Coast produce establishment.  “I got involved through Bob Gray in the late 1990s when he was involved and serving on the board and as an officer.  It has always been important to Duda to be involved and part of the industry.”

He said the Western Growers board has long been populated with the leaders of the western produce industry, and as such it was very important for Duda to be involved in the organization.

As the leader of the organization for the next year, he is encouraging continued innovation at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology.  Duda said that while it will always be important for Western Growers to remain active in the regulatory and legislative environment that means so much to the business, he sees new innovation as the way to thrive in the future.  “Those other issues are not going away but to remain competitive, we need to innovate and modernize.  We are not one of those businesses looking for disruptive change.  We need incremental change.”

He said over-regulation is a problem and he is hopeful for some regulatory fixes that can help minimize the burden of doing business, especially in California.  But to keep pace with rising costs across the board, Sammy Duda believes technology is the answer.  He believes Western Growers has taken an important step with the innovation center and he wants to see the industry embrace that effort.