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Sweat Equity and Fieldwork: The Lifeblood of California

Sweat Equity and Fieldwork: The Lifeblood of California

Beautiful beaches freckled with sun-tanned surfers; perfect weather; palm tree-lined boulevards; and the Hollywood sign. I’m sure many of you thought of sunny California without me even having to say it. Or at least what the Golden State is synonymous with.

For native Californians, especially those who grew up in an agricultural town like Mark Bassetti and me, there is a different side to the West Coast region that many tourists don’t see but all benefit from, whether they know that or not.

In these essential pockets, the entertainment industry and its glamour are replaced by sweat equity, long days in the fields, and 100-year-old companies with a national brand presence like that of Duda Farm Fresh Foods. The pristine ocean is swapped with drip irrigation systems. Surfers transform into sun-tanned farmers and workers who rise before daybreak to beat the arid valley heat. The palm trees are switched with rows of crops, and the luxury cars cruising the boulevards are exchanged with rambling pickup trucks and tractors that occasionally crawl through town, holding up traffic.

These locales are the lifeblood of California. And Mark was lucky enough to spend his childhood in one such area—Soledad, California, to be specific—where he gained an appreciation for the produce industry. A passion that would eventually lead him to his new role as President of Duda Farm Fresh Foods.

“I was fortunate to be raised on my family’s vegetable farm, where we grew the typical Salinas Valley, California, crops,” Mark says with fond reminiscence. “My family has farmed in the Salinas Valley for nearly 100 years, and I am the third generation in the business. We have a big extended family, and everyone was in the ag business on some level. When asked how I got into produce, I joke that was all I knew, and, in reality, I never considered anything but ag.”

Carrying a torch for agriculture, Mark attended the University of California, Davis—in my hometown of Davis, California—where he earned a degree in Ag Science and Management with a Viticulture Option. From there, he worked in California, landing his first job as a Produce Inspector and Buyer outside his family business with Kroger-Wesco Foods in Fresno. After that, he transitioned to Klein Bros. International in San Francisco, where he was a Salesperson and Trader for its dried fruit and nut division.

“When asked how I got into produce, I joke that was all I knew, and, in reality, I never considered anything but ag.”

Mark Bassetti, President, Duda Farm Fresh Foods

Through both roles, he explored different ag regions across the United States and Central and South America, where his love for the industry only deepened. In this phase of Mark’s career, his understanding of the global landscape also grew—something that would benefit him when he came to Duda.

Wanting to get back into the hustle and bustle of fresh produce, Mark left Klein Bros. and made a fateful move to Florida in 1991, where he began his journey with Duda in sales at its Belle Glade, Florida, farm.

“It seems like just yesterday that I went from a 16-story office overlooking the Bay Bridge in San Francisco to the muck of Florida,” Mark relays with a laugh. “Duda provided me with a great opportunity to learn the Eastern vegetable and Florida citrus business and still have ties back to the West Coast.”

As he worked his way up the ladder and was able to lean into other areas of the business, Mark played an instrumental role on the Duda team when they first began implementing reusable plastic containers (RPCs) as a key sustainability initiative.

“I’m aging myself, but at the time, we were still floor-loading some products; we had product shipping in wire-bound crates that fit poorly on pallets. Taking on the challenge of implementing a more sustainable solution gave us the capability to provide better quality to consumers and drive change across all packaging, which was a win for everyone,” recalls Mark. “With us being the leader in celery, RPCs provided a great alternative to eliminate wax in cartons, which was a hot topic back then. Looking back, I see how embracing RPCs helped drive other alternative packaging solutions that are now mainstream.”

Mark has always had a keen eye for viewing the produce supply chain from new angles, which developed his passion for produce traceability and led him to a more recent role with the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) Governance Committee. Backed by this unwavering belief in the need to establish an industry-wide approach to tracking and tracing products, it was paramount to Mark that Duda became an early adopter of PTI.

“By embracing PTI early on, we played a critical role in protecting consumers and our industry by narrowing the impact of potential recalls or other issues, which is crucial,” Mark explains. “I feel Duda was an industry leader in the early days of implementing and advancing PTI.”

“Taking a leadership role in this process has further strengthened our business and protects the products we strive to make safe and reliable.”

Based on Mark’s background, it makes sense to me why implementing PTI was so important: his desire to safeguard the industry, people, and products that have played such a pivotal role in his history. For him, the effort paled in comparison to the reward of upholding the standards of the sector.

“As we know, our industry is a slim-margin, highly volatile business, so an initiative that could be perceived as ‘yet another cost’ requires time and preparation,” Mark articulates. “It gave us a wonderful way to educate our partners and establish stronger relationships by proving how to use the initiative to increase efficiency. Taking a leadership role in this process has further strengthened our business and protects the products we strive to make safe and reliable.”

And when it comes to moving forward? For Mark, he sees technology like Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags as having unlimited potential to help suppliers stand out on store shelves. Innovations over recent decades, like RPCs and RFID tags, have served as stepping stones to the developments of the future.

“This hasn’t become a reality yet, and I most likely won’t see it in my career, but with labor challenges, product signage, and traceback opportunities, we will see affordable technology in the future that will change how we deliver information to shoppers,” he continues. “This is a great opportunity to engage and further educate consumers on our offerings.”

Based on Mark’s focus at Duda over the last 31 years and his vision of the future, it is clear that innovation is always lingering at the front of his mind, informing his decisions. When I ask him about it, the leader tells me that progressive development is more than just a motivation—it has been one of the sources of the company’s continued success in the industry.

“Technology is imperative to meet the needs of our industry and the growing population. We are fortunate to have resources like the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology and strong partners worldwide that provide us a great platform to share key learnings and accelerate testing and executing on new technologies,” Mark imparts. “In my opinion, to stay at the forefront, you have to be willing to engage in and embrace technology and, more importantly, be open to testing new opportunities and accepting change.”

One of Duda’s central operations, its Celery Breeding and Research and Development program, is a prime example of evolving with technology. The program embraces innovation to ensure the supplier brings the best quality and flavor profile to its customers and their consumers. Through technology, Duda can accelerate its speed to market, which continues to position the company as a progressive solutions provider.

“In my opinion, to stay at the forefront, you have to be willing to engage in and embrace technology and, more importantly, be open to testing new opportunities and accepting change.”

This concept of innovation applies not only to the processes and equipment that Duda uses but also to its range of products, including its coveted value-added offerings.

“Our value-added program has gone through an evolution. The key to advancement is realizing you can have a failed product, but that doesn’t mean you have failed. In some cases, we were ahead of consumers; in other cases, items just required minor adjustments,” Mark lays out. “Our first value-added celery stick retail item was unsuccessful, but we engaged with our customers, learned as much as possible about what appealed to consumers, and where we failed to ‘wow’ shoppers. After tweaking our approach, we reintroduced our current washed and ready-to-eat Dandy® celery stick product line, which changed consumers’ perception of celery, grew the category, and increased the purchase frequency.”

In his newly appointed role as President, Mark sees excellent opportunities to continue bringing unique value-added products to market. In the last few years, Duda has put time and energy into improving its product development processes and is excited to introduce new options to increase fresh produce consumption.

With all of these achievements under his belt, what does Mark see for the future of Duda? The answer comes in the form of a four-part goal.

“First and foremost, I’m committed to continuing to drive our business with true partnerships,” begins Mark. “Second, we are challenging ourselves with a continuous improvement culture; we will remain relentless at embracing change and providing the best products, insights, and services. Third, we will continue improving our market position through focused strategic planning. Last, through our R&D and Duda Generations Celery varieties, we will continue bringing the best products to market and provide our customers sustainable growth.”

When listening to a leader like Mark, it’s hard to ignore the passion for fresh produce that lives in his heart.

Growing up in a farming town, I recognize the origin of this commitment. It becomes instinctual when surrounded by devoted individuals who spend sun-up to sundown in the fields, working tirelessly to feed their neighbors near and far. It is a trait born from true dedication to something bigger than yourself, and one that Mark has in spades.