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NWA convention features its first-ever session focused on women

John Groh

SCOTTSDALE, AZ — The National Watermelon Association’s 109th annual convention, held Feb. 21-24, here, at the We-Ko-Pa Resort & Conference Center, featured many of the time-honored traditions of past conventions such as the National Watermelon Queen competition, the seed spitting contest and the annual watermelon auction.

Stephanie Barlow of the NWPB spoke about her 19 years in the watermelon industry as fellow panelists Samantha Kilgore of Association Services Group, Rachel Syngo of Melon1 and 2023 National Watermelon Queen Olivia Johnson look on.
Stephanie Barlow of the NWPB spoke about her 19 years in the
watermelon industry as fellow panelists Samantha Kilgore of
Association Services Group, Rachel Syngo of Melon1 and 2023
National Watermelon Queen Olivia Johnson look on.

But one new session on this year’s agenda was focused on women in the watermelon industry, and by all accounts the strong turnout indicates it will return to the lineup next year and beyond.

“Women’s Session: Growing Together” was the title of this inaugural event and featured an insightful all-female panel that discussed the challenges and opportunities they faced during their career in agriculture. Moderated by Jordan Carter of Leger & Son, the panel included Stephanie Barlow of the National Watermelon Promotion Board, Samantha Kilgore of Association Services Group, Rachel Syngo of Melon1 and 2023 National Watermelon Queen Olivia Johnson, who each brought unique insights to the discussion based on their varied roles and tenure in the industry.

After a brief introduction of the panel, Carter asked each member to elaborate on some of the things they have learned throughout their careers. Barlow kicked off the discussion by saying she found it valuable to say “yes” to many of the opportunities she was offered as a way to broaden her knowledge and presence in the watermelon industry.

“I think it’s important to be vulnerable up front and to be willing to learn from people and develop mentors,” said the 19-year veteran of the NWPB.

Barlow also mentioned that she attended the IFPA’s Women’s Fresh Perspectives Conference in the past and found it to be a great experience to network with other female leaders in the produce industry. “I also learned how to better promote myself and to be proud of my individual accomplishments,” she added.

Kilgore brought the perspective as a business owner and said that she and her two partners developed a shared vision on business practices to make sure they are headed in the same direction with the company. “It helps us to keep the focus on where we want to go and how to achieve the end goal,” she said. “Also, communication is key and it’s important not to make assumptions.”

Syngo, who is chief marketing officer at Melon1, said getting involved has been one of the keys to her success in the produce industry. “How you choose to spend your time is so important, and I have found that serving on boards has been a valuable experience because you can learn so much. I am passionate about agriculture and watermelons, and I want to spend my time with like-minded individuals.”

Johnson echoed those comments, saying, “If you don’t get involved, someone else will.” She added that her experience serving as the National Watermelon Queen for the last year made her realize that not only was she representing the industry, she was representing herself and “you always want to put your best foot forward.”

Carter then asked the panelists about risks they have taken and how that has affected their careers.

“I feel empowered by taking a risk and seeing an idea come to fruition,” said Kilgore, who added that risks are an important part of the development process for employees.

Johnson stressed the need to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and to lean on your support system when necessary – something she did often during the last two years as Texas Watermelon Queen and then National Watermelon Queen.

“As women, we need to stand on our own two feet because many believe we can’t,” she said, “but don’t be afraid to ask for help or to use your support system.”

Carter, who is director of sales and marketing at Leger & Son and who has been with the company for 11 years, then asked the panel about emotional intelligence and how that factors into their careers.

Barlow, who noted that the NWPB has eight members on staff with seven being female, said it is important to be transparent and authentic, and to embrace the human experience and one’s own feelings.

Kilgore said emotional intelligence is something that people develop as they progress in their careers. She explained that she tries not to shield her employees from failure and prefers to let them take a chance and deal with any ensuing consequences as a way to learn from experience and grow as an employee and a person. “It’s important to work through both the good and the bad,” she said.

Syngo said that as a grower-shipper, she is often on the “razor’s edge between our retailers and growers, so we need to understand what makes everything work and approach each situation differently. That has been our secret sauce. You need to invest the time to know your own emotional intelligence as well as those around you.”

Johnson said the past year has provided the chance for her to visit with many members of the watermelon industry. “I have learned so much from them and their reasons for doing what they do, and I feel their passion. It becomes personal. We’re all here for our passion and dedication, and that brings us closer.”

Speaking to The Produce News after the convention, Carter said she was thrilled with the session, and she credited NWA Executive Director George Szczepanski with coming up with the idea.

“George proposed it, and I thought it was a great idea so we went back-and-forth about how to do it, and we decided to have it as a panel discussion,” said Carter. “It was a bit nerve-wracking since we didn’t know what to expect and whether people would attend it, but we were very pleased with the turnout. We had an outstanding panel of strong women leaders who really leaned into it and were very forthcoming and honest with their responses. We need to do more things like this to keep women in the industry and let them know they have a support system behind them.”

Carter added that she heard nothing but positive feedback for the remainder of the weekend from both women and men alike, and she believes the convention committee will include it on the agenda next year, perhaps with a few tweaks.

“I’ll be attending the IFPA Women’s Fresh Perspectives Conference in a few weeks, and I’ll be taking a lot of notes there for some possible things to do next year,” she said.

Barlow also applauded both the idea to include this inaugural event on the convention agenda.

“We see more and more women in the industry, and I think it is important to elevate their voices,” she said. “Regarding the panelists, I thought it was an excellent mix with each of us bringing unique perspectives from our varied backgrounds. There was not a lot of repetition, and we were able to provide our individual views and build upon them throughout the discussion. I would love to see the NWA include this session at future conventions.”

Top photo: Jordan Carter of Leger & Son served as moderator of a panel that included Stephanie Barlow of the NWPB, Samantha Kilgore of Association Services Group, Rachel Syngo of Melon1 and 2023 National Watermelon Queen Olivia Johnson.

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 1995 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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