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USHBC Honors 11 Blueberry Industry Leaders at 20th Anniversary Awards Ceremony
Achievements Celebrated in Grower Innovation, Marketing and Promotions, Food Manufacturing, Export and More
FOLSOM, Calif., October 7, 2020 — During its recent Virtual Conference & Expo, held Sept. 28 to Oct. 1, the United States Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) honored 11 people whose work has helped the blueberry industry grow and flourish over the last two decades.
Awards were created to honor achievements throughout the industry, from the field to the consumer and every link in between. The award-winners, nominated by their peers, constitute a who’s who of the blueberry world, and collectively represent an astounding amount of knowledge and achievement.
The award recipients:
- Grower Innovation, Production: Rod Cook, Ag-View Consulting
Rod Cook, president of Ag-View Consulting and chairman of the USHBC Technology and Innovation Committee. Rod is committed to keeping growers up to date on what technology can do for them. Rod’s many accomplishments include directing the committee’s work on a sensor that has improved the handling of mechanically harvested blueberries. He also created the Technology Symposium, which attracts growers from around the world to get the latest on innovations. He has acted as a liaison between blueberry growers and technology firms and university researchers in efforts to improve all aspects of growing and harvesting. He has also been an advocate for podcasts and webinars that keep a pipeline of information open between technological advances and the field. All this is a continuation of a forward vision that has distinguished his career. He has been involved with innovations involving growth regulators, storage and cooling, and he was the first to market blueberries on Amazon’s “Storefront.” Rod learned early on that one grower or company cannot succeed while the rest of the industry withers. As a result, the health of the overall industry has always been his priority.
- Grower Innovation, Sustainability: Tom Avinelis, Agriculture Capital
Sustainability and stewardship have been the hallmark of Tom’s career that has spanned four decades. Tom is the co-founder of Agriculture Capital where he works to bring institutional capital to build sustainable agriculture and longtime stewardship of the land. Agriculture Capital is one of the largest organic blueberry growers in the U.S. and operates blueberry packing and frozen processing facilities. At Agriculture Capital, Tom’s focus on stewardship has had a big cumulative environmental impact. His company has focused on restoring biodiversity and increasing wild pollinator colonies, which has provided cost savings, increased crop volumes, created more resilient plants, and fostered even more delightful fruit flavor and quality. In 1990, Tom co-founded AgriCare, a farm management services company, with his wife, Karen, and went on to spend two decades providing professional farm management services with a focus on stewardship of the land in blueberries, tree nuts, table grapes, and citrus. Tom was also CEO of Homegrown Farms, helping the organic-focused marketing company grow into one of the largest organic produce marketing firms in the United States in blueberries, citrus and stone fruit. Tom has also been a vocal advocate for blueberry growers and has worked tirelessly to bring growers together to create a stronger industry.
- Grower Innovation, Good Practices: Mike Makara, former chair, British Columbia Blueberry Council
Mike has been involved in blueberries since childhood, having grown up on his family’s blueberry farm in Canada. After selling the family farm in 1991 to a company in eastern Canada, Mike continued on as manager of the ever-expanding operation, which eventually grew to 200 acres. During this period, Mike was one of the founding shareholders of Berryhill Foods. After Berryhill Foods was sold, Mike started his own farm, which grew to 40 acres. Later, Mike became very involved in consulting for other blueberry growers and the British Columbia Blueberries Council Research Committee. Mike eventually became chair of BC Blueberries where he spearheaded research that introduced new technology and development to the blueberry industry. Mike also served as president of NABC for two years. Mike has been a valued presence for USHBC during his many years in the industry.
- Grower Innovation, Community Involvement and Outreach: Lorrie Merker, MBG Marketing
Lorrie has been an important part of the blueberry industry for three decades. As vice president of grower relations, cooperative affairs and social responsibility for MBG Marketing, Lorrie is a Michigan native, graduated from Michigan State and has spent her entire career with MBG Marketing. She knows the organization from top to bottom, from the intricacies of its finances to its core values and mission. For her first 20 years, she was the MBG’s finance director. In 2008, she expanded her role as director of grower and industry relations. She held both positions until relinquishing the finance director role in 2011. In 2014, she was promoted again to vice-president of grower relations, cooperative affairs, and social responsibility. In this role, she is involved in member education, corporate governance, and corporate social responsibility programs, as well as customer and civic involvement on topics important to MBG’s growers and its industry. In 2014, Lorrie organized the Young Cooperator leadership program to train the next generation of blueberry growers. It has now graduated two classes of next-generation farmers, and is in the middle of running its third class. She has also been involved in advocacy at the state and national levels to promote an understanding of the labor and environmental challenges facing farmers. Lorrie realized long ago that by joining together the blueberry industry could do so much more, and she has enthusiastically promoted and worked diligently for both NABC and USHBC in being good stewards of the funds each organization uses to better the blueberry industry.
- Marketing and Promotions: Kirk McCreary, former chair of the USHBC Promotion Committee and former MBG Marketing CEO
Kirk has played important roles at pivotal times to elevate blueberries, promote growth and help growers flourish. As a past leader of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council’s promotion committee, he helped shape the public perception of blueberries that led to the fruit’s phenomenal growth. As the CEO of MBG Marketing from 1994 to 2006, he led MBG through a period of substantial growth and change, positioning the cooperative to continue as the industry leader in the years ahead. Kirk’s influence was felt from the fields to the produce aisle. His promotion efforts capitalized on the growing popularity of blueberries at a time when consumers were embracing their health benefits. He was instrumental in increasing the availability of blueberries year-round through the formation of Global Berry Farms, now known as Naturipe Farms, an unprecedented partnership among growers in Chile and the United States. As MBG’s CEO, he was committed to strategic planning to address issues affecting growers. On the ground, he implemented efforts to improve the quality and consistency of frozen fruit with an eye on meeting consumer demand for quality, food safety and security. He also instituted a food-safety program for all MBG producers encompassing their farm, harvest and packing operations as well as MBG’s warehouse facilities, which has successfully upgraded all aspects of production, distribution and marketing chains.
- Food Manufacturing and Advances in Blueberry Products: Joe Meduri, Meduri World Delights
Joe wasn’t the first to infuse and dry blueberries, but his vision for the uses and opening of diverse markets made a huge impact in the product that consumers love and industrial users can’t get enough of. As the founder of Meduri Farms in Dallas, Oregon, Joe’s efforts have been instrumental in popularizing dried blueberries. It all started with an old prune-drying company in Dallas, Oregon. Joe came from a family that produced prunes around San Jose, California, but his first efforts in Oregon after buying an old prune drying company were met with challenges. He was working with antiquated equipment and found he couldn’t compete in the prune business so he started looking around for other fruits to dry. Since he was in the heart of Oregon’s blueberry-growing country, they were a natural option. Joe experimented and through a partnership with Producer Marketing Inc., the company grew slowly and steadily. In 1999, the USDA research about the health benefits of blueberries hit the news and sales took off. Costco soon became a customer and demand grew to millions of pounds a year and Joe began sourcing fruit from North and South America. Joe continued building the company into an exporting powerhouse and an innovator of dried blueberry and other dried fruit products including sized bits used in industrial baking and cereal bars.
- Frozen Blueberry Products: John Shelford, Naturipe Farms
John has spent more than four decades in the blueberry business. He has excelled in every aspect of the industry since joining Michigan Blueberry Growers Association in 1976 as assistant manager. He became general manager and vice president of the association in 1983. In the mid-1980s, he led the change to packing and selling frozen blueberries in lieu of raw process. He also led MBG into understanding the need for individually quick-frozen fruit in the marketplace, and engaged MBG in IQF fruit processing as far back as 1990. What many would consider John’s most significant achievement in his tenure with MBG was his role in the formation of Naturipe Farms – then called Global Berry Farms. John led the amazing growth of that company and he also helped create a sister company that focused on frozen sales. John continues as a strategic adviser to Naturipe and acts as a consultant in several other areas of the fruit industry, especially in analyzing and reporting on trends in frozen blueberry marketing and cold storage reporting. John served the USHBC as an importer member, or its alternate, since its inception until 2010, and continues to serve as a member of its Promotion Committee and a leader in its USDA relations committee.
- Export and Global Community Relations: Bryan Sakuma, Sakuma Brothers Holding Company
Bryan is a third-generation berry grower in Washington State. He started working at Sakuma Brother Farms in 1989 and was the lead nursery salesperson for the Pacific Northwest for Norcal Nursery, Inc. During the summer months, he was involved with his family harvest and nursery growing operations. Eventually, Bryan became president of Sakuma Brothers Processing where he managed both the fresh market and processing facilities. During this time, Bryan was involved in developing the frozen sales business in Japan. Since 2016, Bryan has been the vice president of sales and marketing for Sakuma Brothers Holding Company. His primary focus is frozen and fresh markets sales.Bryan is widely recognized as one of the most respected blueberry growers in the state of Washington and is always thinking about the best interests of Washington state and the U.S. blueberry industry as a whole. Bryan is a long-standing member of USHBC and its board, and his leadership contributions to the industry are immense.
- Merchandising/Retail: Darrell Piliego, Publix Super Markets
Darrell is responsible for floral, snacks, melons, berries, citrus and mushrooms at Publix Super Markets Inc. where he’s been a category manager since 2016. He previously worked as a buyer for the produce and floral division. Each summer, Publix holds a promotion called “Berry Bash,” and Darrell is the man behind this effort that includes advertising, in-store collateral and a social media campaign. Darrell says the promotion is designed to let customers know that berries are at their peak in flavor and quality in the summer months — something he says happens thanks to growers and partners who provide Publix high-quality, flavorful berries year after year!
- Foodservice: Andrew Hunter, Chef Andrew Culinary Development
As a culinary consultant for USHBC from 2014 to 2019, Chef Andrew Hunter worked to expand public perceptions of blueberry uses beyond pies and smoothies. Some of his ideas: blueberry vinegar, pickled blueberries and powdered blueberries in salt and meat rubs. Andrew is a consultant and head of culinary research and development for Wolfgang Puck Worldwide. He is considered one of the country’s leading research and development chefs. As USHBC’s culinary consultant, he promoted blueberries as a way for restaurants to differentiate their menus. He showed that blueberries can be used across the menu, from drinks and salads to entrees and dessert. He developed the “blueberry mother” base for soups, sauces and dressings. It was a concoction that helped elevate blueberries’ prominence and versatility in recipes. Andrew was front and center on all test-kitchen visits with chain restaurants, in addition to leading the one-on-one innovation sessions. Andrew’s connections within the industry and experience added a great deal of value to the USHBC foodservice program.
- Genetic Research and Breeding with Nursery Propagation: David Brazelton, Fall Creek Nursery
Fall Creek Nursery has long been at the forefront of propagating and supplying top-quality blueberry material to growers around the world, and Fall Creek founder Dave Brazelton has been the force that has fueled the nursery’s ascent. Fall Creek Nursery started when Brazelton and his wife, Barbara, began growing blueberries on a 25-acre farm in Lowell, Oregon, back in the late-1970s. That little farm was the seed of an amazing success story. Over four decades, it has grown into an international presence with locations in Mexico, Chile, Peru, Spain, the Netherlands and South Africa. And that success has come about because of Dave’s and Fall Creek’s dedication to a better blueberry. Their contribution has not only been in the area of nursery stock but by helping growers understand how to grow them with attention to the marketplace. Dave and Fall Creek have lived up to their stated mission to “serve the growers and to support the blueberry industry, helping to ensure growers maximize success through our delivery of the best genetics and plants, technical know-how and global market intelligence.” Dave also has been the health research chairman for USHBC for its entire 20 years. Without the work of this committee, blueberries would not have the “health halo” that they have today.
“Our 20th Anniversary Awards are an opportunity to celebrate the incredible, hardworking, innovative people across the entire blueberry supply chain,” said Kasey Cronquist, President of USHBC. “While everyone has contributed in some way to growing the blueberry industry, our recipients deserve special recognition for their efforts over the last two decades. Their work has made a lasting impact, well positioning our industry for continued improvement, collaboration, and success for the next 20 years and beyond.”
A recording of the awards celebration, including acceptance comments from each of the award recipients, can be viewed online here. For more information on the USHBC, visit USHBC.org.
About the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council
Established in 2000, The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) is a federal agriculture research and promotion program with independent oversight from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). USHBC represents blueberry growers and packers in North and South America who market their blueberries in the United States and overseas, and works to promote the growth and well-being of the entire blueberry industry. USHBC was established by blueberry growers and currently has 2,500 growers, packers and importers. USHBC is committed to providing blueberries that are grown, harvested, packed and shipped in clean, safe environments. Learn more at ushbc.org.