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Birds of a Feather Pep Together

We all crave diversity in our lives, even if we don’t realize it. At holiday dinners, do we eat only ham? Heck no! We want the stuffing, the green beans, the potatoes, the pie, and then a lengthy nap. Regardless of whether your holiday feasts resemble mine, you get the point—diversity is what keeps people interested. In produce, diversity factors into more than just food; with an ever-expanding global supply chain, new growing regions are emerging, and those resisting that international mindset will find themselves losing out on what the rest of the world has to offer. For Wilson Produce, this ethos is in its very DNA, as evidenced by its binational, bicultural heritage.

There are many players in the produce industry, but not all of them have familial roots that stretch all the way back to their origins. Since the era of the Lindy Hop, Wilson Produce has spent four generations perfecting its business and operations, securing a strong foundation and building its way up to a well-respected presence in the industry. Its name may have changed over the years, but the company’s sense of tradition and quality has held true.

“We started as farmers. In the early 1900s, James C. Wilson moved from the U.S. to Mexico, where he met his wife, Esther Alcalde, in Sinaloa, and in 1936 started farming in Estación Bamoa, Sinaloa. In 1965, after serving in the Korean War, their son, James K. Wilson, founded the Southwest Produce Company in Nogales, Arizona, as an importer-distributor for the family farm,” Owner Alicia Martin, tells me. “We partnered with cousins of ours for a few years in the mid-90s as Wilson-Bátiz, but returned to our roots in 2007 to become Wilson Produce, the distribution company that we are today.”

“In considering the health aspects and snackability of the mini sweet pepper, we developed the ‘Mighty’ brand, which we have extended to include with various other products.”

— Alicia Martin, Owner, Wilson Produce

For Wilson Produce, “it’s a family affair” isn’t just a Sly and the Family Stone lyric, but a way of life. And while the family connections that run deep throughout the company are part of what makes Wilson Produce so unique, a new distinction has emerged to position the grower as a cut above the rest—female leadership. Alicia takes pride in her ownership position in the company and recognizes how her status fits into the industry’s ongoing narrative around gender parity.

“The challenge is to be seen as equal and to be taken seriously,” she says. “In my experience, all of our growers are men and, sometimes, that can be challenging, especially when you have a situation that needs to be worked through. So, staying the course and not being intimidated can be stressful. I hope that, with more women in the industry, the dynamics will shift to seeing each other for who we are, not what we are, or what we might represent.”

Alicia knows firsthand the challenges that women in the produce industry face. Our industry is full of dedicated individuals who care about the land and the produce it generates. Wandering show floors full of industry pros, you would be hard-pressed to run into individuals with a perma-blasé attitude. Such passion can be a double-edged sword, however, as it can be all too easy to let work creep into our “off hours.” For women, this balance can be even more precarious, as we try to live up to all that is expected of us.

Wilson Produce has been making waves in the pepper category with its sweet, colorful additions

“Most of the women I know have to balance work and family. Some days, it’s hard to find the hours to get it all done: work, take care of your home, make dinner, be available to your family, and find time for yourself! As an owner, it is even more challenging because work is with you 24/7,” Alicia admits.

It all ties back to diversity and how Wilson Produce has evolved to identify the unique peculiarities that makes it so special. Operating on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Wilson Produce is a vertically-integrated produce distribution company with a unique connection to farmers. As a grower itself, the company is intimately familiar with the challenges that farmers face. With generations of experience at its back, Wilson Produce has the technique down, and can now focus on expanding its portfolio of produce offerings.

“Our whole approach to agriculture has really developed in a big way over the last few years. We are taking more of a systems approach in just about all that we do, examining the inputs and outputs, and working toward greater efficiencies throughout our value chain,” Alicia explains. “Despite the success we have had with the mini sweet pepper, we recognize the need to diversify our portfolio. So, for instance, this season you can expect to see our Persian/mini cucumbers, green beans, and squash.”

Left to right: Scott Kosnik, Margie Kosnik, Alejandro Carranza, Alicia Martin, and Chris Martin

Though Wilson Produce is steadily growing its collection of healthy, snack-friendly fare, there is one standout veg—the mini sweet pepper. Once considered a specialty item, the mini sweet pepper used to have a bad rep; consumers thought the precious peps were expensive, hot, and prone to spoilage. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

“The mini sweet pepper is no longer a specialty item,” Alicia asserts. “People have noticed that it is more convenient, less wasteful, and that the variety of colors is aesthetically pleasing. Besides, who wants to leave halves of unprepared bell peppers in the fridge?”

The mini sweet pepper program was co-developed with Wilson Produce’s seed partner, Enza Zaden/Vitalis, a third-generation, family-owned Dutch company. Wilson Produce has exclusively grown Enza’s mini sweet pepper varieties since the very beginning. Now, the company is in its fifth season of developing new varieties with unique attributes that will better fit with the locations and ways Wilson Produce grows. But again, the company’s mini sweet pepper program was not an instant hit.

Elias Rodriguez, Operations and Food Safety Manager, with some of Wilson Produce’s products

“We began with a fairly small trial at our farm where we struggled to sell a few boxes at a time. But we saw the potential, quickly fell in love with the product, and gradually scaled up production and distribution, establishing the product in the U.S. marketplace,” Alicia explains. “Early on, we emphasized the name of our company on the bags of mini sweet peppers, but we soon realized that many people thought that the mini sweet peppers were spicy. So we shifted gears and began to emphasize the flavor experience of the product, and that’s why you see ‘sweet’ in large letters. In considering the health aspects and snackability of the mini sweet pepper, we developed the ‘Mighty’ brand, which we have extended to include various other products.”

As the industry trends toward consolidation, private labels, and less plastic packaging, growers and distributors find themselves competing in a marketplace increasingly dominated by commodities, and Wilson Produce is no exception. But the company has still kept up its competitive edge, offering products that stand out in terms of quality, shelf-life, and sustainability.

There’s that word again—sustainability. More than a flash-in-the-pan trend, sustainability and eco-friendly practices are a full-blown movement and a golden opportunity to push the industry’s profitability to new heights. Alicia tells me this new industry direction plays out in Wilson Produce’s fields in the form of innovative agricultural practices.

“Our whole approach to agriculture has really developed in a big way over the last few years. We are taking more of a systems approach in just about all that we do, examining the inputs and outputs, and working toward greater efficiencies throughout our value chain.”

“As farmers, we are faced with the challenge of sustainably feeding an increasing global population while using fewer resources and being exposed to the effects of climate change,” she says. “Our goal is to be part of the solutions to those challenges, whether that’s through more efficient drip irrigation systems, more precise fertilization techniques, integrated pest management, or various systems based around the concept of circular economy, such as composting and vermi-composting.”

The idea of a circular economy struck a chord with me. A system in which resources are reused and waste is recycled, without a drop in revenue, is something that benefits and transforms the entire industry. The circular system concept has informed the evolution of Wilson Produce, setting a definitive sustainability goal and opening the company up to new opportunities.

Alicia Martin and Margie Kosnik, Sales, bag some of Wilson Produce’s premium peppers“Quite possibly our biggest development has been the transition of both of our own farms to soil-based organic agriculture. And, to take that a step further, regenerative organic agriculture, where we work to minimize our use of external commercial inputs while increasing the productivity of our growing systems, has been a significant development as well,” Alicia adds. “We achieve this through a highly-integrated systems approach starting with the microbiology of our soil and going all the way to the renewable energy systems within our distribution network.”

But in produce, as in other industries, it all comes down to the oft-elusive customer. For Wilson Produce, chasing the consumer is more than chasing profits, it’s a way to contribute to the nutritional evolution of the entire world. Educating the consumer is important because we are, after all, the produce experts—how many people on the street can name more than five varieties in a single category? A better-informed customer is a powerful presence in the produce department, as more knowledge leads to more purchases. But education should come from more than just growers; retailers are an invaluable ally when it comes to reaching the common folk wandering the aisles.

“Retailers should really be working on reconnecting people with their food—real food, that is. And education is key,” Alicia explains. “Educating their clients on how their produce is grown, what food safety and social responsibility standards are required of their suppliers, how to prepare healthy, affordable dishes at home, and how the food that they are selling is medicine for society and for the environment.”

As my conversation with Alicia came to a close, my mind drifts, again, to diversity. What pops into my head used to be category varieties, but now my eyes have been opened to a whole world of possibilities and applications for diversity in business practices. A child of two nations, Wilson Produce saw this value from the very start, and subsequently evolved into an open-minded and multi-faceted company that tests new produce varieties and sustainability techniques to solidify this sense of diversity. It is, after all, the spice of life.