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Industry veteran named 2019 honoree at United Fresh

With 27 years in the produce industry behind her, Jan Berk, chief operating officer of San Miguel Produce, Inc. more than earned her nomination as the United Fresh Show’s 2019 Women in Produce Breakfast honoree.

Berk began with San Miguel in 2002 and was tasked with marketing and rebrand the Cut ‘N Clean Greens line, the company’s first specialty, dark leafy greens product. From there, she worked her way up the company and became a partner at San Miguel in 2006 when she was named COO.

Here Berk reflects on her time in the industry and what she sees ahead for women in produce.

Q: As 2019’s Honoree, what does that mean to you?
A: I am humbled to join the many amazing ladies who have been awarded this great honor before me. I have big shoes to fill.

Q: What are some key career accomplishments you’re proud of?
A: In the nearly 40 years of my career, the most significant accomplishment was changing my career from one industry to another--from a media/newspaper executive to an ag/produce executive and now a partner/owner.

Having spent the first two decades of my career in the newspaper industry, and then moving to produce some 20 years ago, I had to learn an entirely new industry literally from the ground up. From “farm to fork” as they say. This was not only challenging but also a very exciting and rewarding change for me. I am very grateful that Roy Nishimori, founder of San Miguel Produce and my now partner and husband, believed in me and gave me this opportunity.

Q: What have been some of your biggest career challenges?
A: Basic business principals are for the most part universal to most industries. However I cannot think of any other industry that is more unpredictable or humbling than fresh produce. The best laid plans in farming can often be derailed so very quickly given that Mother Nature is in control, not us humans.

These past 12 months are a perfect example of these challenges. National weather issues caused many shortages and challenges for many crops around the country. And for our niche dark leafy greens, we had our own national collard and kale shortages this winter which many of us are still recovering from.

It takes time to fully understand and appreciate the produce business. When I first started, I was anxious to jump in and learn as much as I could and as quickly as I could. I soon realized that one must be patient and experience several full years to understand the nuances of the seasons, not only in growing the products but also in the customer and consumer demand side and its seasonality.

Q: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
A: Slow down and enjoy the journey and the people around me more. Not worry as much about the politics in the company or industry. Don’t beat myself up as much on missed opportunities or mistakes. Just keep learning from these experiences and do my best, pushing forward.

It’s easy to say now when we are older, but harder to do when we are younger. We as young individuals or companies are always looking ahead of the game or competition--what is the next big deal? How to grow bigger, better and/or faster? However, it is not always about bigger.

It’s more about finding your niche and doing your best and being tenacious and passionate about it. And when opportunity knocks, answer the door.

Q: What are some of the changes you’ve seen for women in produce over the years?
A: Today there are more women in more diverse leadership roles than we have seen historically. However, we still have room to improve. For example: operations, farming, food safety, logistics, and owners/executives of corporations. Not too many women fall into these roles. We do see many women now as sales/marketing executives, which is wonderful. Twenty to 30 years ago, women were more traditionally in support roles labelled as “women’s work.” I still know some companies who literally see things this way today. I was in a sales meeting a year ago with a wholesaler and there were some 20 salesmen around the table. I was the only woman in the room.

Q: What are some of the challenges for women that lay ahead?
A: Helping and guiding companies to change the work culture in a positive way for women to take on more leadership roles and not just supporting roles. We can’t force this change. It takes hard work, influence and tenacity. A good balance of men and women in the leadership roles in work places of any organization will significantly enhance and strengthen a company or organization.

Q: What are you looking forward to at this year’s show?
A: I greatly value the United Fresh organization and the important work it does for us all in the produce industry. I look forward to reconnecting with my colleges and friends and seeing what is new on the equipment side as we continue to expand our fresh-cut operations.

For more information:
Jan Berk
San Miguel Produce, Inc.
Tel: +1 (805) 488-0981

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