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The Ties of Agriculture

The Ties of Agriculture

I have always been fascinated by the red string theory.

As stated by an ancient Chinese proverb, “An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance.” I find comfort in the idea that, no matter how many twists and turns life may hold, we all somehow end up exactly where we are supposed to be. Call it chance, destiny, or fate.

For Jami Espinosa, Produce Category Manager at Wakefern Food Corp., the invisible red thread began connecting her to a career in produce in her teenage years—even before she realized it.

“There are a series of moments that have all linked together to determine the path I am on now, and in retrospect, it just makes sense. At the time, I wouldn’t have ever thought that was the case!” Jami shares as we begin to dig into her career in the ag and produce space. “Growing up, I couldn’t get enough time outside. Summer days were spent from sun-up to sun-down at the barn with my horse, which left me with little time for much else, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I took an agriculture class in high school, and that teacher encouraged me to apply to an ag school—Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College—in Georgia. I toured the campus, and as soon as we walked from the dorm rooms to the on-campus barn, there was no turning back; I think my career fate was sealed at that moment.”

Her fate may have been determined, but it took some time to get to her current role as Produce Category Manager for Wakefern.

“My path to Wakefern was admittedly a winding one,” Jami explains, casting a line back over an eventful career path. “My first job was actually at a fertilizer plant in my hometown. After that, I worked outside of the industry for quite some time. This stint away from agriculture taught me so many valuable lessons about the business world, and I am really grateful for those experiences which have helped shape me into the professional I am today. The agriculture industry welcomed me back with open arms as I held a sales role and Commodity Manager position for a produce company in South Florida. Then, I moved ever so slightly north and landed a job in Wakefern Florida’s field office in Pompano Beach. The rest is history.”

It was in this office that Jami was granted the opportunity to learn from a few insightful mentors. Crossing paths with Wakefern’s Freddy Curcio and Glenn Johnson, she was exposed to a series of valuable lessons that guide her decision-making as a leader today.

Perhaps it was that persistent red thread that pulled these industry pros into Jami’s path.

“Glenn is my mentor to this day, and I will continuously work toward possessing the knowledge he displays, ever so humbly, every single day. Spending time in the fields is where my heart for this industry lies, and it’s remarkable that I get to do that as much as possible,” she shares. “In my current role as a Category Manager, I still find myself out in the fields often, even if that now means my laptop is tethered nearby.”

Another industry icon who mentored Jami is the late and incredibly beloved Marianne Santo of Wakefern.

“Marianne was so incredibly impactful to my career, and in my life. Seeing what a woman in this industry can do, and the way that she paved the path for me to succeed, is extraordinary,” Jami reflects. “Marianne had this uncanny ability to make any stressful situation humorous, and would tell me never to worry—an impossible ask. She would always say, ‘Bring it to me, and we will work through it together,’ and she meant it. There was nothing I could bring to Marianne that she couldn’t fix, and having a partner like that in the workplace as a young woman, even now, was the confidence boost that I needed to succeed. Her razor-sharp wit, professionalism, and immense knowledge are missed every day, and I will work consistently to try and honor her by attempting to be that person for someone else.”

As Jami will tell you without hesitation, relationships like these have been the fuel behind her continued success in the retail space.

“There are a series of moments that have all linked together to determine the path I am on now, and in retrospect, it just makes sense.”

Jami Espinosa, Produce Category Manager, Wakefern Food Corp.

“Relationships within Wakefern, with vendor partners, within the trucking industry—you name it. Without those relationships, there’s unquestionably nothing else,” Jami imparts. “I try to never forget what I am asking a grower for when I am writing a PO (purchase order)—the hard work that goes into growing, picking, packing, shipping—it sets off a whole chain of events, and it’s so important to respect the effort that goes into each task. One of my most cherished relationships is with Bonnie Schallenberg. She’s been a truck driver longer than I have worked there, and she’s an absolute powerhouse. If you want to talk about the success of a person in produce, look no further than the trucker who delivered their product on time!”

And solid relationships empower people to take on challenges.

“There is a strong reliance in this industry on people, and when those partnerships align, that’s what makes this industry so special,” Jami adds. “There’s also a need for change and innovation, to keep things moving forward. It’s so important to embrace change and model it into something valuable, by way of your own past experiences,” she points out.

Jami’s own personal and professional experiences have shaped her outlook and helped move her forward.

“A huge part of who I am today comes from becoming a mother at a young age,” Jami divulges, reflecting on another challenging yet rewarding journey. “This catapulted me into a career early on and left no room for failure. As a young professional woman, I felt the need to work harder, be smarter, never make a mistake, and always stay one step ahead of everything and everyone. That can be exhausting, and it’s just not realistic. Today, I am learning to be the more human, authentic version of myself who does, in fact, need to stop from time to time in order to be successful.”

“What keeps you up at night?” I ask Jami, eager to pick at another side of the trailblazer’s brain and uncover some of the gems forged by her role as a mother.

“The idea that my 18-year-old son, Logan, will be leaving for college this year. He’s a brilliant mind and a busy athlete who definitely has a school project due, but for now, that takes a back seat to tinkering with his truck,” Jami jokes.

“And what gets you up in the morning?”

“The sunshine and boss of our house, my 10-year-old daughter, Peyton,” Jami smiles. “She’s late to bed, early to rise, and never wants to miss out on a thing—especially if that thing includes riding horses or rescuing any fluffy animal.”

This talk of the younger generation sparks Jami to share a few words of wisdom for the next generation of produce aficionados.

“There seems to always be a need for talent, and there are so many unique facets within our industry to explore,” she tells me. “If you’re on the fence, now is the time to strike. While the grind certainly comes with the territory, working in fresh produce will expose you to some of the most amazing people who would be thrilled to teach you everything you need to know.”

From riding her horse in the summer sun to exploring the halls of an ag college in Georgia, and now using her skills to advance the Wakefern produce operation, I can clearly envision the red string of ag weaving its way through Jami’s upbringing and tying the knot on an endlessly successful career.

If there is anything I have learned from Jami in the making of this article, it’s to follow your heart and be unapologetically yourself.

And when you feel the tug of that red thread of fate, don’t resist it. 

The Ties of Agriculture