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Against the Odds: A Balancing Act

I believe that, sometimes, those with the most skin in the game are the ones that never knew they would end up here. Gifts can come from the rarest of places—turn a corner and maybe your life shifts towards an orchard somewhere in Texas and you live caring for the earth, learning what it means to be a steward of the land. Make a right two streets ahead, and perhaps you end up in a classroom battling to reach your students on both an educational and human level.

April Flowers does not see these lines in the sand as choices that divide a life, but ones that connect us all together. She approaches her story not with simplicity, but rather with appreciation for the twists and turns that come with the journey. For her, they are all experiences that have built the person she wakes up as, every day. They are the stories that breathe life into her own and into whatever home or role she finds herself in, no matter the road that’s taken.

“People are hardwired to connect, and I love that idea in both business and in life.”
- April Flowers, Marketing Director, Lone Star Citrus

“I grew up right in the middle of Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. I was a city girl without any ties to agriculture, so I certainly never expected to be in the produce business,” April, Marketing Director for Lone Star Citrus, tells me. “My story actually begins as a middle and high school teacher of what we called last-chance students. These were kids who had much larger challenges than most of us could ever imagine, and I had to somehow find a way to get them to care about literature and American history. It is a perspective that has forever shaped my life.”

She laughs, and after a short pause reflects on the constant battle of her day-to-day adventure back then.

For April Flowers, a good marketer is an even better listener who reaches people on their own terms

“We’re talking about eighth graders who ranged from 15 to 18 years old, most of whom had spent a significant amount of time in school-mandated boot camp. If you’ve ever met me in person, you know that at 5’3” I’m not exactly intimidating, so I couldn’t possibly scare them into behaving. And yet, I had to capture their attention for hours every single day,” she says. “Even after I married T.J., my husband, and moved into the general education setting, not a whole lot has changed. Getting teens to care about school is not a cakewalk and they have a million valid concerns, worries, and challenges that we adults often completely take for granted. You have to be creative, and you have to connect the information to meaningful experiences.”

You may ask yourself how this all influenced what would soon be her life in ag—I certainly did. But, as many of us in produce know, there is always so much more to the story than meets the eye. In essence, these early days were how she learned that no matter how compelling information is, presentation is everything. It asks you to package a message, a vision, or a conversation a certain way.

With kids, with anyone, you need to get on their level: learn how to reach people on their own terms, listen to their wants and needs, speak to them in their language. It is quite possible that in order to be a good marketer, you need to be an even better listener. And that is a skill that April has in spades.

“This truth holds for everyone, from my kids to teenage students to adult consumers,” April reflects, reaching back into her history with both nostalgia and curiosity. “I enjoyed teaching, and I loved my students, but when we had the opportunity to invest in Lone Star Citrus, we knew we needed to do it. Because my parents were business owners, I had no illusions that it would be a simple endeavor. Thus, I decided that it was time to step back into a part-time position, and eventually step away completely after the birth of my second child in 2009.”

April Flowers dipped her toe into the marketing world after an idea for a more consumer-friendly bag option for Lone Star Citrus

T.J. Flowers, April’s partner in crime, has deep ties to farming, so the couple did not fly blind as they stepped forward onto their next path in life. Being a new parent, entering a new learning curve, investing in a new business—all these things create opportunities as much as they do challenges. It all comes down to your mindset and how much skin you are willing to bring into the game.

“I made a valiant effort at being a stay-at-home mom but, in the end, it just wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong, I think that being a stay-at-home parent can be as tough and rewarding a job as any, but in the end, I just wasn’t built for it alone. I needed to also work this other bone I was born with—something that required another form of grit and passion. Luckily, a friend needed a part-time employee to coordinate the trade shows that her business, Welcome Home RGV, organized,” April says.

For the next two years, April got a crash course in niche marketing. And she loved it—the organization behind it, the human connection, and having a hand in helping small businesses connect with their customers.

Kristi Collier was a brilliant businesswoman whose slogan was, and still is, “We’re just connecting the dots.” These are words that resonated deeply with something in April’s gut and heart.

“Those words made sense to me. And really, that is exactly what marketing is. Whether it’s B2B or B2C, successful marketing programs function as a meaningful and memorable information bridge,” April tells me. “People are hardwired to connect, and I love that idea in both business and in life. ”

April  and T.J.  with their daughters Maddie (left)  and Lily (right)

While April followed the path her new passion was paving for her, she found that life was becoming more and more of a balancing act. As much change and complication as many of us experience in our lives, nothing can really prepare you for the curveballs, especially on the family-level. As April grew into her new career, the home front was asking her to grow and adapt in different ways as well.

“I have two children, Lily and Maddie, and in 2011 my oldest daughter developed severe medication-resistant epilepsy. Her treatment and care became intense, and it wasn’t long before I needed to prioritize her health above all else. We spent the next several years traveling to Houston for frequent hospitalizations and surgeries, and I spent that time learning everything I could about epilepsy, neurology, and patient advocacy,” April shares with me. “I became obsessed with finding a cure for her. It was, and still is, my life’s mission. Every bit of advocacy I engage in comes back to that.”

Although a cure has not been found for her daughter Lily, her condition is finally stable and there is a very important reason for that.

“We love her medical team because every doctor on our team has one very important trait in common: They all take the time to listen to us, to help us understand risk and reward, to explain the treatment mechanisms, potential outcomes, and to ensure our complete understanding of her current condition. Not one of them has ever walked into a room, mumbled a bunch of medical jargon, and walked out,” April reflects. “They are highly-regarded doctors, even world-renowned, and yet they all prioritize our understanding of the plan. We have made the seemingly impossible decision of sending our child into brain surgery, not once or twice, but nine times. Let me assure you, that is every parent’s worst nightmare, but we were able to do it each time with a great deal of confidence and buy-in because at every turn, we had a strong grasp of the details surrounding each situation.”

The Lone Star Citrus Family with their Rio Star grapefruit which brings flavor, differentiation, and vibrancy to the produce aisle

Being able to prioritize what matters has always been a great skill in April’s life, and her fierce determination and passion for the people around her has made her an advocate and a leader in many spaces. In many ways, her heart permeates everything she touches—another gift of hers—and it has allowed her to lean into her values across all paths she crosses.

“It was shortly after her sixth surgery, when we thought her condition had stabilized, that I again turned an eye toward my professional goals. I needed the freedom to make my own hours and work remotely to accommodate medical travel and days when she wasn’t doing well. Being able to hold that balance has been one of the hardest but most rewarding things I have been able to do,” April says with a smile. “But it also left a pretty narrow field of options. I had one skillset that our family business needed—I knew our insurance policy inside and out, and I understood the mechanics of it better than most. That was important because the Affordable Care Act provisions were filtering down to our level by that time. So, I went to work for Lone Star Citrus as the Benefit Administrator in 2014.”

As April tells it, she minded her own business for maybe two months. If you get a strong sense at all that April is a mover and a shaker, you would be right.

She knew that marketing was calling her name, and in November of 2014, April asked for a meeting to discuss a smarter, more consumer-friendly bag option for Lone Star’s citrus. The company needed a bag that communicated why the consumer should buy the product. So, Lone Star agreed to connect with Lisa Cork, a brand developer. After 11 months of working on it, the team had a bag that communicated meaningful images and info at a consumer level. That bag ultimately became the Lone Star brand, and the rest is history.

Successful produce marketing requires an element of education, to show the consumer why they should purchase a certain produce

“When we first began our branding research, I thought I knew a lot about grapefruit, but I quickly learned that there is such depth and breadth to this fruit,” April notes, adding that there are so many varieties, points of origin, and colors, and the combinations of those attributes can affect the flavor. “It is asking a lot to expect the consumer to understand how all of those factors influence just one item on their grocery list. Even if we were successful in promoting a particular variety, varieties are always improving and changing, and new cultivars are always in development. So, there isn’t any meaningful sticking power to variety-associated marketing.”

“Time is most certainly one of the most precious and finite gifts we can give each other. These are the things that matter.”

A great example of this is the Ruby Red.

“Everyone thinks they want Ruby Red grapefruit, but what most people really want is a Rio Star. 90 percent of our crop is Rio Star, and people love it, but it is constantly being confused with Ruby Red. Then, when people do get a true Ruby Red, they are sometimes disappointed. Even when they are trying to choose the correct fruit, they don’t always get what they expect, so of course, people are confused about grapefruit. It’s frustrating, and I get it,” April articulates.

In this day and age, people are busy—hands down, she notes. Few people have the time or desire to sit down and analyze every item on their grocery list. If you ask April, most of her grocery trips more closely resemble an episode of Supermarket Sweep than a planned event—so, she gets it.

And here comes the truth.

“Here’s a terrible confession for a produce marketer: I don’t love grocery shopping,” April says, and instead of slinking away from the conversation, she settles into it full force. “I’ve done every version of motherhood—full-time, part-time, no-time, healthy kids, kids with medical issues, mom with a mom, mom without a mom, mom on a shoestring budget, mom with means—and in every single version, grocery shopping was usually a chore. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but as a marketer, it’s something I always have in mind. I know there are people out there who love grocery shopping and cooking, and of course, I’m going to speak to them. But what I really want to do is make it easier for the people who don’t have the time or desire to do the legwork on figuring out grapefruit.”

April knows that she loves and truly appreciates packaging that is honest and spells out the product’s qualities while also offering new ways to use it. Parents, single adults, kids—they make a thousand choices a day; the last thing April wants to do is agonize over her grocery list. Sometimes we forget that we are consumers, too.

April and her daughters, Maddie and Lily

“As a marketer, I want to make this choice easier for the consumer. It just makes sense to remove unnecessary expectations from the consumer and package our finest red grapefruit in a branded bag that delivers the customers’ expectations. When we then support that brand with recipes, how-to’s, and tips, we become more than a supplier—we become a resource,” she expresses. “Texas citrus is in a unique position. We have an incredible product, but we operate on a much smaller scale than other citrus-producing regions, so the onus is truly on us to promote and differentiate our product to the consumer.”

In order to do this, Lone Star has focused on simplifying its portion of the category by elevating seasonality, and the company has positioned itself to be a valuable resource to the consumer.

Lone Star also rests firmly on the notion that to maintain its competitive edge, the team is also going to have to intentionally seek out technologies and communication channels that speak to a younger generation. That will be a challenge, April notes. There are so many possibilities in this dynamic arena, and Lone Star will have to be extremely judicious when evaluating its options so that the company invests only in those that it truly believes are powerful.

When I ask April what advice she has for those looking to evolve their marketing programs in produce and what questions they should ask themselves when building a brand, vision, and a go-to-market strategy, she tells me that her advice is: First, ask yourself what important information is not currently being communicated that should be communicated.

Produce brands can reach consumers using packaging, recipes, how-to’s, and tips

“For existing programs, we have to take a hard look in the mirror and ask whether our efforts are making the purchase easier for the consumer. Are we differentiating the product by providing information and ideas, or are we just using pretty graphics that we hope will catch the consumer’s eye?” she asks, and I imagine this is a question she puts to her team often. “Once we have that information, it all comes down to a willingness to take a risk. There is nothing Earth-shattering here, but we need to evaluate the risk differently. I think we all tend to ask ourselves the question, ‘What do we have to gain if we do this?’ but that is a simple question. And it often leads to the next question, ‘What do I lose if it doesn’t work out?’”

As April reminds me, we are all programmed to want a guaranteed result, and we all know that in an industry subject to Mother Nature and a fluctuating market, that is impossible. Lucky for us, there are many in the industry with voices that align with April’s.

“The DMA Solutions team taught me a very important question a few years ago that reframes the way we evaluate the risk: What happens if we DON’T do this?” she poses. “Often, that question will give you a much deeper and more comprehensive answer.”

In April’s world, once the team has decided to go for it, they constantly ask themselves if their strategies honor the consumer and whether they add value to the purchase experience. Consumers are savvy, and Lone Star steers the ship ahead knowing it has to approach them with a tone that recognizes and honors that. The question now becomes: How does Lone Star make the purchase easier for the consumer without being condescending?

Can you sense the fire in this up-and-coming leader? I can. April is unapologetically herself, in her work and in her life.

“I lost both of my parents to cancer right before Lily got sick. It was a rough decade, but it absolutely shaped who I am now, and I can appreciate that. I love my kids, and my colleagues, enough to have the big conversations with them and to also hold them and myself accountable for our actions—something that’s not always popular and is rarely easy. I am passionate about community service and leaving this world a little bit better than I found it, and I have high standards for myself and my work because I was raised to have them,” April says and then takes a moment to collect her thoughts. “Finally, I like to work, even though I don’t have to, and I want my girls to see that and know that it’s not wrong. Because of all the loss and heartache, I was forced to come to terms with these things, and I decided to quit feeling guilty about any of it. God knows I’m far from perfect, and I screw up plenty, but I have very clear lines about where I spend my time and energy now. Time is most certainly one of the most precious and finite gifts we can give each other. These are the things that matter.
The risks and rewards of living an authentic life, of coloring outside the lines, are not lost on April Flowers. If anything, that is where they are found.