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Under the Orange Tree: A California Tale

Under the Orange Tree: A California Tale

I grew up in California. I’ve driven through farmland, tasted the tang of ocean air on my tongue, and sled through snow six-feet high. In the midst of the grand, you can sometimes miss something small—something you might not realize is historic. Because, for me, the seemingly small moment I stepped into the leafy hollow of my grandmother’s orange tree was when I knew California was a land steeped in story.

The tree stood behind her house. At the time, it seemed to take up the entirety of her backyard. If I bent beneath the branches to stand by the trunk, the world surrounding it would disappear and I was left to my own imagination, my own creation of stories. At the center of them were girls fighting off monsters, changing the world, or chasing down their own dreams.

As I sit down to write a story about a young woman whose dreams could very well change a slice of this giant world, I can almost imagine the snap of citrus tickling the back of my throat.

The young woman I speak of is Cassie Howard, a rising star in the California citrus community, who, like many heroines of old, felt something pull her toward destiny.

“I joined Sunkist Growers in March 2011 after spending a few years at the California Tree Fruit Agreement (CTFA) as an analyst. That was where I fell in love with category management and this industry,” Cassie says, pulling me into her journey toward becoming Sunkist’s current Director of Category Management.

“Women bring a different passion, excitement, and perspective to produce. [...] I’ve had the privilege of seeing them encourage one another and lift each other up. I am honored to be a part of this crew.”

Cassie Howard, Director of Category Management, Sunkist Growers

In this role, Cassie spearheads multiple projects, like tracking consumer trends as they relate to Sunkist citrus categories, packaging solutions, and benchmarking opportunities for the cooperative’s partners.

Along the way, Cassie’s own story has intertwined with others, weaving a rich tapestry as thick as those leaves above me nearly twenty years ago.

“We have a strong representation of women in produce at our citrus cooperative, across all departments, especially on our marketing and sales teams,” Cassie shares. “Women bring a different passion, excitement, and perspective to produce. I’ve been encouraged by the accomplishments I’ve seen in our female sales force—seeing them in action, in meetings, winning awards, and doing what they love most. They are the best. They have embraced and mentored other women in our organization to continue that success. In our industry, I’ve had the privilege of seeing them encourage one another and lift each other up. I am honored to be a part of this crew.”

The crew has also managed to bolster Sunkist’s position in the market—no small feat—although the 125-year-old cooperative continues to deliver new innovations and drive up varietal interest.

“Through our category management program, we continue to reaffirm our presence as a citrus leader across all business facets. I’ve been fortunate to be given the tools to help grow category management over the years,” Cassie asserts. “What I love most about this role is helping identify opportunities for our retail partners, which help grow their business and our category. When they jump on an opportunity that I have presented, and it drives sales, it feels like a win-win. That is the most fantastic part of my job. Through category management, there is a clear path to measuring success, and it drives me.”

This drive for success anchors Cassie, making everything she chases after a certainty—not just a possibility.

I couldn’t have selected a better heroine if I had written her myself.

“The Sunkist leadership has always supported me in my goals to grow, whether that be through IRI conferences, the Category Management Association, or countless webinars and development courses,” Cassie shares. “Since the beginning of Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) Women’s Fresh Perspectives, Sunkist has been a sponsor and encouraged my involvement and attendance at these events. Sunkist has also sponsored my participation in the PMA Emerging Leaders Program as part of the class of 2013. When I decided I wanted to go back to school to pursue my Master of Business Administration, the team was incredibly supportive through the Sunkist tuition reimbursement program. Also, they assisted me in my final thesis on Organizational Management and Supply Chain.”

“Through category management, there is a clear path to measuring success, and it drives me.”

Cassie Howard

In her time at Sunkist, Cassie clearly has taken to both the job and the land in which that job encompasses. This extends to the communities that make up these essential growing regions, such as Cassie’s support of a local Fresno, California, church. This church has been hosting “Base Camp,” a free community meal every Thursday, for the last 15 years.

“At the onset of COVID-19, several members knew that this meal was even more critical for those in the neighborhood, but needed a new approach. Since then, a group of volunteers has been offering a socially distanced, safe, to-go meal for anyone who comes,” Cassie shares with enthusiasm. “The group switches every other week, so my mom and I handle the distribution bimonthly. It has been so amazing for two reasons. One, it has allowed me to spend precious time with my mom that I otherwise wouldn’t have during this whole thing, and two, I have loved getting to know the community members by providing them with not only a good meal but human connection in a time when that is limited. We serve upwards of 50 meals a week, and always incorporate some fruit or vegetable in each meal—on New Year’s, we were able to put a Sunkist Cara Cara in each meal, which I loved!”

Cassie’s thoughtfulness doesn’t end there, as she has also raised thousands of dollars for the Foundation Fighting Blindness® by hosting a “Dinner in the Dark” event at a local Fresno restaurant. Guests wear a blindfold during their meal, a method that helps build awareness for those who are visually impaired.

“It is a fantastic way to open up your other senses around food and experience what the world is like for so many people who have vision impairment. Unfortunately, the 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic. However, there is growing interest and excitement around the event, which means we are bringing it back as soon as possible,” Cassie notes.

It’s easy to see how someone like Cassie has carved out a name for herself. A mixture of lightning-fast consumer knowledge and an intricate understanding of citrus categories make for one woman whose destiny is on the fast-track to produce greatness.

I think eight-year-old me would have been proud to tell her story. 

Under the Orange Tree: A California Tale