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Starting your own produce business

In a country populated from its beginning through today by people willing to take a risk, the spirit of entrepreneurialism runs deep in the American psyche and history.

Entrepreneurs, from Ben Franklin and Henry Ford to Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates—to name just a few—are examples of how hard work, tenacity, and innovation can pay off and benefit many.

This same can-do spirit is found in the fresh produce industry too, where many have taken a leap of faith to start their own businesses or expanded existing ventures in new directions.

Building a business in the perishables industry isn’t easy, but it has reaped rewards for those who revel in calling the shots, creating jobs, or building a legacy to pass on to their children.

They are not unlike many others who also dream of running their own businesses—as more than a third of working Americans hope to start a new business in the future.

Miguel Gomez, associate professor of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics at Cornell University, who studies the produce industry, says there are ample opportunities for new businesses, even as the industry becomes dominated by larger farms and fewer buyers.

“There are opportunities,” he says. “It’s not an easy sector, but it’s an exciting sector.”

Harold McClarty, owner of HMC Marketing Group, Inc. BB #:129161 of Kingsburg, CA, knows the excitement and challenges of running his own business.

He grew up in the produce industry and worked for ten years in sales for another produce company before helming his own business, a grower-shipper and exporter of fruit including peaches, plums, nectarines, and green, red, and black grapes.

McClarty’s motivation for starting his business, which now employs 2,000 workers, was very simple: he wasn’t happy with the direction of his former employer and wanted to do better.

“I just wanted to have one of the best-tasting boxes of peaches you could grow,” he says.

Even with such clear intent, he and other owners say running a business, particularly one in the fruit and vegetable industry—and subject to any number of challenges from weather to tariffs to pests—is anything but simple.

Even as their companies have grown, business owners acknowledge that failure is never far from their minds.

“The more you grow, the more your responsibilities increase,” says José Louis Obregon, president of importer and distributor IPR Fresh BB #:170086 in Nogales, AZ. “You need to continue to manage and sustain growth because a lot of people depend on you.”

“We still work really hard,” points out McClarty. “I don’t get real comfortable; I know what it’s like to worry where your next meal is coming from.”

And while they are well aware of all the challenges, they’re gratified by the rewards. Ben Johnson, founder and president of Bridges Produce, Inc., BB #:168499 in Portland, OR, values helping others achieve success.

“When we start with growers and help them develop and make the best use of their assets, it’s great for us,” he says.

Obregon takes pride in IPR Fresh’s success but is already looking forward.

“Hopefully, it will be a legacy for our children.”

This is a multi-part feature on starting your own produce business adapted from the October 2019 issue of Produce Blueprints.