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New CEO shaping future direction of Farm Fresh Direct of America

By
John Groh, publisher

Mike Hulett has worn many hats throughout his 24-year career in the produce industry, from working on the family farm when needed to brokering fruit to being a grower-shipper to serving as a category director of produce merchandising for the world’s largest grocery chain.

Now, he is tapping into that well-rounded background as he looks to reshape Farm Fresh Direct and position it for future growth.

The fact that Hulett had a seven-year stint at Farm Fresh Direct earlier in his career is an even bigger bonus, as he has a deep understanding of the Monte Vista, CO-based potato grower-shipper and can better identify its strengths as well as areas where it can improve.

“Running a grower organization and having a grower connection gives me a good perspective,” said Hulett, who rejoined Farm Fresh Direct in January after spending nearly 12 years at Walmart. “Watching my dad, who was an apple grower in Washington, and being exposed to the stresses he had, and the conversations we would have -- sometimes animated -- about him being a grower and me being a broker, that all helped shape me and prepare me for my current role.”

Hulett said his time at Walmart was also an invaluable stepping-stone for his career.

“Walmart was very good to me,” he said. “That experience grew me, allowed me to stretch, and I met a tremendous number of good people there. The leadership at Walmart during my tenure there was phenomenal. It was great to see how the world’s largest grocery retailer operates, and it was a fantastic business education.”

Part of what Hulett is planning to bring to Farm Fresh Direct is structure and process, which he learned at Walmart.

“Fortunately, I inherited a solid company and this was in no way a rebuild,” he said of Farm Fresh. “I am looking to build on the prior two leaderships, which had an entrepreneurial mindset under Jim Knutzon, and a stabilization factor that Jamey [Higham] brought in. My role now is to take it to the next level by building on the strengths that are there by adding some structure and process and newness to how things are done for growth.

“There is a tremendous amount of talent and potential in this business that will greatly benefit by being channeled with from a little bit of process and structure,” Hulett continued. “You don’t want to be so defined that you are handcuffed to a certain way of thinking, but if you can clarify some process and establish a routine, you can be more efficient. That’s the biggest thing I learned from Walmart is the need to improve efficiency by process.”

Adding structure and process also will help control costs and maximize the productivity of the Farm Fresh team, said Hulett.

“We have a lot of good people, and I’m looking to give them clarity in their roles,” he said. “Some of our people have been reassigned and some have been given more responsibility. We’re creating a culture of do-ers, not just talkers. So we are moving our culture to the ‘doing’ stage.”

As an example of moving forward proactively, Hulett said Farm Fresh has added two team members to serve in new key roles.

In May, Mayra McKibbon joined Farm Fresh as director of workforce and community programs. Hulett said that McKibbon was a migrant worker herself and spent the last 25 years working with government-supported programs that brought aid to underserved farmworker communities, and she was hired to do the same for Farm Fresh.

“In the three short months that Mayra has been with us, we have instituted a college scholarship program at our packing facilities, and we are in conversations about affordable housing, as well as day care solutions at our facilities,” said Hulett. “Those are big things to develop over time and having Mayra’s knowledge of what programs exist and connecting them to our needs is huge. She has been able to connect our workers with things like medical support with funds that are available. Her knowledge is great, and over time this will continue to shore up what we do for the community and what the community does for our program.”

Also, Hulett said that in October Farm Fresh will be enhancing its food safety and sustainability program with the addition of Brooke Zimmer as senior manager of food safety and sustainability. Zimmer is an agronomist who currently works at Crop Quest and will be relocating to the San Luis Valley soon.

“Brooke will place an emphasis on soil and water conservation,” said Hulett. “If you know anything about the San Luis Valley, water is the number one issue, and we have to be very purposeful in what we are doing with our water use in order to have sustained agriculture in this region. We’ve always leaned toward sustainability, which started under Jim Knutzon, but we need to be more purposeful about it. With Brooke’s expertise, we’ll be able to connect with the growers and move things forward.”

In addition to benefitting its own workers and the environment, investing in these two areas will help Farm Fresh exceed versus just meet the demands of its customers.

“A lot of retailers are asking, what are you doing for your labor, what are you doing for your water, what are you doing for soil health,” said Hulett. “Mayra and Brooke, with their skills and history and knowledge are giving our total enterprise a solid boost. It is what I like to call ‘stepping up’ our program.”

Regarding this year’s potato crop, Hulett said on Aug. 17 that harvest had started on yellows two days earlier, and russets would start in the coming days.

“The valley started a bit slow with a lot of wind and cool temperatures, but we’re making up time and the rains that we received around the valley have been fairly timely, so the crop looks really good and very clean,” said Hulett. “It’s not a barnburner, but we may be a bit up on tonnage as the yield presents. Things look promising for a good quality crop.”

He added that demand on potatoes still far exceeds supply, and that is not expected to change any time soon. As a result, there needs to be careful planning on how to manage the crop.

“I think there is the feeling nationally that we’ll be tight on potatoes based on conversations we have had,” he said. “It will be another calculated year and we will need to be thoughtful to get through the year to the new crop, which is hard to grasp when we haven’t even started harvest yet. Indications are that Colorado will have a good supply but one that needs to be watched closely.”

Compounding the supply situation is the fact that Mexico has allowed shipments into the interior of the country beyond the 26-kilometer border zone.

“That presents an interesting twist because if the Northwest is going to be short like last year, that puts a lot more demand on U.S. supply,” said Hulett. “This is a great thing for our growers, giving them many more opportunities. But the question is, will Mexico truly remain open? If it stays open, it could be a game-changer and could divert product away from the U.S. Choices will have to be made, but it’s a good position for our growers and good for the San Luis Valley.”

Hulett said organics are a strength for Farm Fresh Direct and an important part of the overall equation for the company. Currently, it offers organic russets on a year-round basis, and is close to doing the same with yellows and reds.

“Even though organics are a small part of the potato pie, it is a very important piece for many of our customers,” he said. “Plus, it is a good feather in our cap to be able to offer both convention and organic, since our customers can stay with us and not have to look to another supplier.”

Hulett credits Lonnie Gillespie, chief organic officer, with developing the organic program.

“Lonnie has done a tremendous job over the years building the organic program and courting the growers that have the right conditions to grow and store organic product,” he said.

Photo: Senior Quality Control Manager Anthony Martinez conducts a test dig on Yukon Golds in late July along with several Farm Fresh Direct growers from Bierigers.

John Groh

John Groh

About John Groh  |  email

John Groh graduated from the University of San Diego in 1989 with a bachelors of arts degree in English. Following a brief stint as a sportswriter covering the New York Giants football team, he joined The Produce News in 1996 as an assistant editor and worked his way up the ranks, becoming publisher in 2006. He and his wife, Mary Anne, live in northern New Jersey in the suburbs of New York City.

 

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