During the year, we honor 35 living Vanguards and 12 missing heroes. This month’s star is Tonya Antle of Organic Produce Network.
Originally printed in the September 2021 issue of Produce business.
The loss of the broadcasting industry is the gain of the product industry. In fact, a colleague calls Tonya Antle, co-founder and CEO of the Organic Produce Network (OPN), based in Monterey, Calif., The “mother of organic products.” Over the course of a 40-year career, Antle has strived to take organic fruits and vegetables from a purchase primarily sought after by Birkenstock-clad shoppers to a routine purchase by everyone from millennials to babies. boomers, with displaced availability of “health food” stores. to mass market retailers nationwide. Introducing accessible and affordable organics to the masses was not an easy field to cultivate. It is one that has crossed the grain of industry standards for many years, but in the end, Antle’s true pioneering work changed the organic fresh industry forever.
“Tonya could clearly be called the ‘mother of organics’,” says Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, DC. Offering consumer products in supermarkets across the country. country. When I first met Tonya decades ago, she was almost a sole organic advocate at Pavich Family Farms. But she was relentless. Over the years, she has brought organic produce to every retail operator and showed them how it can be a real money maker while also meeting consumer demand. inspiring. ”
A CAREER FOCUSED ON PRODUCTS
Antle grew up on the family-owned table grape and citrus farm in Delano, California. She quickly learned from an early childhood that Saturdays weren’t for cartoons and cornflakes, but rather a day to drive a tractor and irrigate with her sister and two brothers in the family vineyards and alfalfa fields. Years later, Antle graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the University of California, Irvine, with the dream of becoming the next Barbara Walters. She hosted a college TV show called “The UC Eye Show,” which aired locally in Orange County, and landed an internship with ABC News in Hollywood, which ultimately led to a job offer at KFSN, Channel 30, in Fresno. It was a favorite post, but she never started the broadcast job. Instead, in 1981 Antle went to work for a specialty products company, Frieda’s, in Los Alamitos, California.
“I am the granddaughter, daughter and wife of a farmer. Growing up in the romance, heartbreak, and triumphs of the commodity industry, my heart is rooted in this business. I probably never really had the chance to leave it behind. And I’m grateful I didn’t, ”Antle says.
With mentors like Frieda and Karen Caplan, Antle says Frieda’s was an amazing place to learn about selling products. The most important take-away point, and one that would serve her long before as she soared in the organic realm, was how to build a strong case for something niche or out of the ordinary. The organic, like the kiwi twenty years ago, was then such an animal.
Although she is now a commodity professional, it was Antle’s personal life that catapulted her career so strongly into organics. As a young mother, she packed her two children each month and drove from the South San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles to stock up on organic foods at a health food store called Mrs. Gooch’s (now owned by Whole Foods). The driving time inspired Antle Bulb’s thought: “I knew if I was willing to drive two hours to buy organic food, there were surely a lot of other mothers who felt the same way. . “
ORGANIC AS A CAREER PASSION
After Frieda, Antle worked at Pavich Family Farms where her brother-in-law led the charge by converting the table grape acreage to organic cultivation. Antle, in turn, was the first person to sell a truckload of organic produce to a conventional retailer, Stop ‘n’ Shop in Boston, MA, in the late 1980s. Harold Alston, vice president of sales and of chain product purchases at the time, contacted Antle because of her fear of losing shoppers to health food store Bread and Circus.
Antle leveraged the success of its organic sales to this innovative New England chain to gain buy-in from other major retailers. As a result, Alston, along with Frank Padilla of Costco, Dick Spezzano of Vons, Reggie Griffin and Keith Johnson of Kroger, Hugh Topper of HEB and Ron McCormick of Walmart have become clients as well as mentors to help Antle learn, develop and develop the mass market. organic segment.
Antle has left Pavich and found what she calls the perfect new home at Earthbound Farm, based in San Juan Bautista. As vice president of organic sales – the company’s first female vice president and one of the first in the fruit and vegetable industry – she strived to make organic produce cheaper and more available. .
“Tonya has been a driving force for Earthbound by winning supermarket distribution for organic products. Her unique combination of leader, passionate organic advocate and primary consumer has enabled her to communicate our core mission to supermarket executives. We certainly couldn’t have had the same level of success we’ve all achieved at Earthbound without her, ”said Drew Goldman, co-founder of Earthbound Farm.
The move from Antle to Earthbound in 1998 coincided with the industry in the process of developing rules for the national organic program standards as a result of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. At that time, it there was no federal standard for organic products and this limited the state’s large, multi-retailers. For example, if there were more than 30 certification agencies, each with slightly different standards, it would be difficult for product buyers and consumers to know exactly what a given version of organic means. USDA organic standards became law in 2002, which accelerated the growth of organic.
“My whole career has been forged against the norm. From being a woman in products to the whole process of convincing retail buyers to try their luck on organic. I believe what Jonathan Swift said: “Vision is the art of seeing things unseen. This was the guiding principle of the organic pioneers, and I am proud to be considered among them, ”she says.
A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR OTHERS
After retiring from Earthbound Farm, Antle took the time to enjoy life and travel with her late husband, Rick Antle, President and CEO of Tanimura & Antle, in Spreckels, California. It was during these years that she joined the Ag Business department of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo as an adjunct professor in fresh fruit and vegetable marketing and also served the university as a member of the Council of President. She has also lectured at the Department of Agricultural Affairs at Hartnell Junior College and at the School of Business at California State University at Monterey Bay.
“While Tonya and Rick met later in life, they also formed a special pair. This is why United Fresh was delighted to honor both with our Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. Both have made an individual contribution to the success of our industry, and I only wish this partnership could have lasted longer to see what they would do next, ”Stenzel said.
Antle was honored in 2017 as Ag Against Hunger Farm Woman of the Year by the Grower-Shipper Foundation Association based in Salinas, Calif., And in 2003 received the United’s Women in Produce Achievement Award.
Looking ahead, she says: “I am incredibly happy to see so many young talent entering our industry. I am proud to be a teacher and mentor for so many of these people. The future looks bright for fresh products in general and organic products in particular.