Nov 30, 2018
A Q&A with Mike Stuart of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association

You could say he started at the bottom and worked his way up.

More than 40 years ago, before Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA) CEO Mike Stuart started working for specialty crop growers, he was a produce merchandiser at a grocery store chain in southern California. But until 1978 he had no idea the fruits and vegetables he sold were the start of a lengthy career in opposite corners of the United States, first at Western Growers and later in Florida.

He announced his retirement this summer and in September was named an inductee into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame. Fruit Growers News recently caught up with Stuart to talk with him about his experience and what he sees as current issues of fruit growers including trade and the farm bill.

Mike Stuart, right, with the late Frank Johns of Tater Farms. Photos: FFVA

Fruit Growers News:  When you started working at the grocery store in college, did you do that with an eye toward your future career?

FFVA CEO Mike Stuart:  I had no intention of doing that, although at the end they were talking to me about making it a career. But no. I was a journalism major in college, I had a real strong interest in political science. When the opportunity came to do some writing for Western Grower and Shipper, which is the publication owned by Western Growers, as well as do some public relations writing for them, I thought what better to build that portfolio than with an industry I’m familiar with.

Obviously, I got into it, I fell in love with the industry and I never left it.

Right out of college I got a job at Western Growers as a writer for the magazine and public relations for the association, and then just stayed with Western Growers for 13 years, leaving there in the number two slot, senior vice president, and got the job in Florida in 1992, and I’ve been here ever since.

FGN:  What are your views on the current tariff vs. free trade debates?

Stuart:  We’ve been focusing primarily on the NAFTA negotiations.

Florida and the Southeast are in a unique position relative to the rest of agriculture. The competitive situation we’ve had, particularly with Mexico during the life of the North American Free Trade Agreement, it’s really put multigenerational producers in the Southeast at peril of losing their farms, losing their packing operations.

So, we’ve spent the last year plus trying to work within the framework of the NAFTA negotiations, trying to find a solution for that. We haven’t gotten there yet. The preliminary deal with Mexico doesn’t include a resolution to that problem, but we’re going to continue to aggressively pursue negotiations there, because frankly, if we don’t, we’re going to lose a lot of folks down here, and with that goes our production capacity in the U.S. for a number of months during the year. Because we’re the only part of the country that can effectively provide those kinds of commodities domestically during the winter months.

FGN:  We’re in the process of honoring 40 people under the age of 40 who are rising to the top of the fruit and vegetable industry. What advice would somebody with 40 years’ experience give them?

Stuart:  Being persistent in your career goals is extremely important. Stick around for a while to really learn a job or industry. One of the things I’ve seen develop in the last 20-25 years is a tremendous amount of job mobility, and I understand why people do it. There are some good reasons for it. But one of the things you really learn to appreciate when you stick with one job for a period of time is a truly in-depth understanding of how an industry works, and the opportunity to develop lifelong friends and colleagues within an industry and an organization.

We work really hard to build a culture within the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association that encourages people to stick around, and it’s a lot more than what you pay them. It’s the work environment, it’s the operational culture, it’s the facility. We kind of operate as a big family. Look for those sorts of organizations to work for, and stick around for a while.

Mike Stuart, right, with Jeb Bush, above, former governor of Florida. Photo: FFVA

FGN:  Is there anything else you’d like to say to the industry as a whole?

Stuart:  When I first came to this industry, we were, in the industry, a complete unknown. Nobody cared.

There are some old stories about people essentially getting kicked out of congressional offices talking about different things that were important to the fruit and vegetable industry that members of Congress didn’t care about in leadership roles.

So we have come a long way and the way we did that is we said, “We need to come together as an industry and form an alliance that will allow us to use our collective strengths” – political strengths as well as breadth as an industry in terms of the total number of states we represent – “and try to see if there are some things we can do that not only help specialty crop producers, fruit and vegetable crop producers in particular, but also in a way that improves the health and well-being of the American public.” We grow the best medicine in the world, to use an old phrase, and I think we have succeeded rather well in getting congressional understanding of that.

And now we’re an active part of the farm bill, and a very important part of it. And that has happened as a direct result of a number of us several years ago getting together and saying, “We can’t do this apart; we have to do this together.” It’s been a very successful process and that’s one of the things I’m really proud of.”

– Stephen Kloosterman, FGN Associate Editor

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