Raina Nelson, CEO of Westfalia Fruit USA

“Industry Advancement Requires Collaboration”

Raina Nelson heads the North America division of Westfalia Fruit, bringing her unique vision, scientific expertise and vast industry experience.

By Edward Vernon

At the helm of Oxnard, CA-based Westfalia Fruit USA, Raina Nelson brings an impressive blend of scientific acumen and seasoned industry insight. The executive was appointed in August 2021 as CEO of the North America division of the South Africa-headquartered multinational. The global company, founded in 1949 by Dr. Hans Merensky, a botanist and geologist, is a grower-supplier of a wide range of fruits and vegetables and is a leader in the avocado industry. It has production operations in 15 countries across five continents, including southern Africa, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Portugal, the U.S. and India, and it claims to have the world’s largest avocado-growing footprint.

A Florida native, Nelson was born into agriculture, with her father being a second-generation citrus grower in the state’s central region. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition along with a master’s degree in Food Science and Technology, both from the University of Florida.

Her ascent in the produce industry encompasses numerous roles at some of the world’s biggest companies, including quality assurance manager at Del Monte Fresh Produce — her first job out of grad school. She then went on to work at Boca Raton, FL-based Rosemont Farms, where she served as director of food safety and quality systems before moving into imports, supply chain management and business management. Rosemont Farms was absorbed by Eden Prairie, MI-based Robinson Fresh.

Next, she was hired by Renaissance Food Group, a division of Santa Paula, CA-based Calavo Growers, where she worked for over nine years, eventually becoming the organization’s executive vice president of business development before moving into her current role. Nelson also served on the Southeast Produce Council (SEPC) board of directors, was chairman in 2022 and currently chairs the organization’s Next Generation Leadership initiative that develops leadership skills for future leaders of the industry. She also served on the board of the United Fresh Produce Association and chaired the Freshcut Processor Board and served on the inaugural International Fresh Produce Association’s (IFPA) board.

At the IFPA’s Global Produce and Floral Show 2023 in Anaheim, Nelson was given the Frieda Rapoport Caplan Women’s Catalyst Award. The award, named after the industry legend in 2020, is given by IFPA to someone in the industry who serves as a catalyst for women’s success in the industry.

In our conversation, Nelson shares her strategies for nurturing growth within Westfalia, while also highlighting the importance of community and ecological stewardship. She reflects on the evolving demands of consumers, the fluctuations of the market and how her extensive background has equipped her to navigate and lead in these complex scenarios. She also sheds light on her leadership philosophy, her advocacy for innovation and her commitment to ethical practices that resonate with Westfalia Fruit’s core values of environmental stewardship and responsible management of its bio-resources and communities in which it operates.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did your family and educational background play a role in your career?

My dad taught me a lot about work ethic and dedication and what it took to cultivate a crop in harmony with Mother Nature, or sometimes not. My brother and I used to joke about us being my dad’s irrigation system, before we upgraded to an inline system.

Seeing people enjoy the fruit and having fresh orange juice during my childhood overshadowed the toils and setbacks that farming occasionally brought. When I was considering career paths, I didn’t necessarily envision myself as a traditional farmer, but I did fall in love with food science and post-harvest physiology during my time at university.

My career journey has led me down a path of fantastic opportunities, with my science background serving as a solid foundation. I’m thankful for this because science fosters curiosity and a mindset of discovery. I find it fulfilling to seek truth in business and apply practical problem-solving and informed decision-making to thrive and formulate business strategies.

You’ve been at Westfalia Fruit USA for two years now. How did you first come to work there?

I wasn’t actively seeking a new job, but the description for this role happened to cross my desk and a friend strongly recommended that I give it a read. He told me, “It really sounds like you.” What caught my attention was the last sentence, which mentioned the need for a low-ego, high-performing executive to lead the global team and expand in the United States. This led to a lengthy process spanning several months, involving over 80 candidates. But as the process unfolded, it became increasingly clear that this opportunity, given my background, presented a compelling proposition that I couldn’t ignore.

What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion in the produce industry, and how do you see this evolving in the future?

I think we’re better than ever when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the produce industry, but there’s still a long journey ahead. I’m a firm believer that innovation is closely linked to diversity, which, in turn, leads to invaluable equity. To unlock this potential, we need to adopt a growth mindset and a collective approach within the industry. Advancement can only be achieved through collaboration.

I recently came across a Forbes article stating that only around 25% of C-suite roles are filled by women at companies in the U.S. and Canada, and only 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. This clearly indicates a need for improvement. Gender-diverse companies tend to be more successful, showing increased profits, higher productivity, better talent attraction and retention, and a greater focus on innovation and openness. These are values I strive to nurture in Westfalia’s workplace culture.

This is a topic that warrants ongoing discussion and a focus on leadership development to foster healthy cultures within our industry. I’m encouraged by the efforts of organizations like the SEPC and IFPA through their women in leadership programs. I was deeply honored to receive the Frieda Rapoport Caplan Women’s Catalyst Award at the recent IFPA show. It was a recognition that meant a lot, not just to me, but to the entire industry, both men and women. Continuing Caplan’s trailblazing legacy and inspiring more women to take up the torch is something I’m passionate about, and I hope to ignite this passion in others.

You’ve worked at several significant names in the produce industry. How do those experiences inform your current role?

Every one of these companies and the people I worked alongside provided me with growth opportunities and invaluable lessons. This collective experience has effectively prepared me to lead Westfalia Fruit’s U.S. business. Each of these companies had distinct business cultures, philosophies, people and leadership styles. I made a point to observe and learn from each of them.

Some companies had excellent learning and development programs, while others had remarkable workplace cultures. I also encountered challenges that taught me valuable lessons about what not to do. This experience reinforced the idea that there’s always room for growth, whether I was working for a large corporation or a privately held business. A common thread across all these experiences was the importance of understanding how to create and drive value for stakeholders. I came to appreciate that stakeholders encompass a broad spectrum, including customers, peers, managers and consumers. Going the extra mile in each case became a key practice in my approach.

How do you envision the future of Westfalia in North America, especially in the context of this huge boom in demand for avocados over the last few years?

We’re currently in an exciting phase of growth, with significant progress made over the last two years. This period has brought both promising opportunities and notable challenges. We’ve achieved double-digit growth and recognized the ripe potential for increasing avocado consumption in North America. Avocados are among the world’s most nutritious fruits, making them an exciting commodity to work with every day.

We see a tremendous opportunity for consumers to enhance their health and wellness through avocados. But we also understand the need for educating consumers and our customers. This involves optimizing the supply chain, implementing sustainability initiatives and ensuring equitable returns for our growers. All of these efforts come together to create an innovative and disruptive program for retail and our foodservice partners.

We firmly believe that the potential for growth in this category is limitless, and we acknowledge that different regions offer varying opportunities for growth. While the West Coast has been a significant user, there is still work to be done in other parts of the United States to ensure a consistent supply of high-quality avocados at retail.

How do you create an innovative and disruptive avocado program?

It’s a great question, and it’s something we’ve established in other parts of the world through trusted partnerships rather than transactional, opportunistic business. All of our customers will have equal access to our 365-day avocado program. The way we cultivate these avocados is distinct, and our rootstocks and our research have been dedicated to quality trees from the very beginning. Our technology and innovation ensure customized ripening and consistent quality.

For the United States, the primary opportunity lies in educating consumers and providing consistent access to truly ripe and ready-to-eat avocados. While some areas in the United States may think they already have such a program, I have witnessed programs take on a different dimension in other parts of the world. But it’s essential to drive consumers to retail locations for their avocado shopping.

There’s of course a growing emphasis on sustainability in the global produce industry. What role do you see Westfalia playing in leading and setting standards in that area?

I think we’re viewed as one of the most sustainable companies, especially in the field of agriculture. This vision of sustainability originated with our founder. He was a botanist and geologist who purchased the Westfalia estate when it was in a state of disrepair, overrun by invasive species. Through regenerative agriculture, he restored the land, and this commitment to sustainability remains at the core of our identity.

Our focus is on the well-being of the land, our communities and the economies we influence. By our 100-year anniversary, we aim to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

In the United States, we’ve recently introduced a zero-plastic packaging initiative for our bagged avocado programs, reinforcing our commitment to reducing plastic use. We’ve also partnered with “Can I Recycle This,” a recycling technology platform that provides consumers with convenient recycling information based on their location. We felt this was necessary to provide accurate and real-time resources for consumers to properly handle their packaging at end of use based on their current location to improve proper recycling. These are just a couple of the initiatives at the forefront of our sustainability efforts.

Which regions do you think you would focus on in the United States to expand avocado sales, and what partnerships do you think would be necessary to further expand Westfalia’s reach?

It has been a significant part of our development strategy over the past two years. We’ve been working diligently to ensure that we can deliver fresh, ripe and ready-to-eat quality avocados to any location in the United States in a just-in-time manner.

To achieve this, we’ve established six service centers across the United States, with a particular focus on regions where we see potential for per capita consumption growth. Our sights are set on the entire Eastern Seaboard, from the Northeast to the Southeast, and into the Midwest. We think there’s a significant opportunity to increase avocado demand in these areas and have forged multiple partnerships and engaged with key retailers to deliver what we know consumers will appreciate.

What are your thoughts on the pricing volatility in the U.S. avocado market and how that could impact long-term growth in the category?

I’ll try to put a different angle on it. We’re thinking about avocados differently. We’re not only thinking differently at the retail shelf, but we’re also thinking differently from the supply chain. And you mentioned volatility, and that has certainly been a pain point for multiple people at various points in the supply chain.

We think there’s an opportunity to offer solutions that can reduce volatility and boost retail consumption. We’re approaching the avocado supply chain differently, aiming to provide innovative solutions to mitigate volatility and drive consistent consumption growth for the category. We’re excited to bring this vision to life through our strategies. While the U.S. strategy may have unique aspects, our core vision to be a sustainable leader where all stakeholders co-exist in healthy and balanced harmony remains the same.

How do you think technology and innovations might shape the avocado industry, especially in North America? And what does Westfalia have in the pipeline in terms of robotic harvests?

Well, without giving too much away, innovation is a pivotal factor in shaping the future. Leveraging artificial intelligence and technology is the key to delivering what consumers want. Our research and development team focuses on integrating tech and innovation into every aspect of our work.

Regarding harvesting and ripening, we’re exploring innovative approaches. Our ripening method is distinct from traditional ones, allowing us to assess fruit quality without damaging it. This innovation is a significant part of our ongoing efforts to improve fruit management throughout the supply chain.

How do you think the avocado industry can best educate consumers about its advances in sustainability?

Through trusted partnerships, we believe that our customers will understand the extensive work we’ve done to build more sustainable supply chains. In the past year, we introduced a global water plan with the goal of reducing our overall water usage by up to 50% by 2030. Water is a crucial global issue, and our approach involves implementing best practices, measuring our progress and using data to track our efforts. This ensures that our environmental commitments are upheld on a daily basis.

The real question is, how will this benefit consumers and align with customer sustainability initiatives? The answer is that these efforts are highly complementary. Understanding what we’re doing at every level within the supply chain is an integral part of fostering trusted partnerships.

And talking about where the vision and the mission came from is part of our magic. Again, Dr. Hans Merensky’s legacy is still very much alive. It’s guided us over the past 70 years, and it’s going to guide us over the next 70.

Climate change poses challenges to agriculture at large. How is Westfalia preparing for these challenges as it relates to the avocado industry?

When I think of this, I’m reminded of our experience at the IFPA show. In our booth, we featured a virtual reality journey called “The Orchard of the Future.” This immersive experience takes visitors to the year 2049, giving them a glimpse of what sustainable avocado farming will look like as we approach our 100th anniversary. It showcases our strategies to combat climate change, with a strong focus on water management, orchard health and the promotion of sustainability through regenerative practices.

These are areas we’ve dedicated ourselves to for many years, and it’s a comprehensive approach that covers everything from the initial growth stages in the ground to the final product on store shelves.

We’re actively exploring real-time monitoring of our shipping processes, ensuring that the fruit we’ve cultivated with great care arrives in the most appealing and delectable condition for consumers. It’s an all-encompassing effort from start to finish.

How do you see consumer preferences around avocados evolving in the next decade?

I think that gaining an understanding of the versatile uses of avocados is a significant step forward. Educating consumers about the health benefits and various ways to incorporate avocados into their daily lives is crucial. In the United States, people primarily use avocados for guacamole, salad toppings and sandwich fillings, but there are numerous other creative ways to include avocados in their diets. We can draw inspiration from how avocados are used in different countries and cultures, such as in drinks and various recipes beyond just toppings.

The conscious consumer is increasingly interested in the journey of an avocado from farm to plate and its positive impact throughout the supply chain. It’s essential to have open conversations about this, as consumers are genuinely eager to learn more about the journey and how we aim to utilize the entire fruit, minimize waste and address fragmented supply chains.

While consumers may not have been as concerned about these factors a decade or two ago, I believe it will become a more significant focus for them in the future.

What major trends do you anticipate will impact the produce industry over the next five to 10 years?

I’m a huge proponent of food and nutrition security. We consume a variety of foods daily, and it’s crucial to recognize that not all foods are created equal. One remarkable advantage we have as an industry is our ability to produce these wonderfully healthy fruits and vegetables. Health and wellness are not limited to physical well-being but also encompass mental health. We are privileged to offer products that contribute to overall health and well-being.

Functional foods that help optimize health and wellness for individuals are becoming a growing trend. Discovering innovative ways to incorporate fruits and vegetables, especially avocados, into dishes that transport people to different cultures or allow them to experience new flavors without traveling is something consumers are increasingly seeking.

Also, understanding what they consume, its origin, and the positive impact it has, resonates strongly with conscious consumers. This trend is likely to remain highly relevant.

What excites and worries you most about the future?

I still wake up every day loving what I do. The future of agriculture is full of promise and excitement. While it’s not without its difficulties, as we’ve discussed, it’s highly rewarding to see the impact on families, friends and consumers. Witnessing their appreciation for understanding how their food goes from farm to table is truly remarkable.

We have so much to offer the world in terms of promoting healthy eating and overall wellness. However, what worries me the most is addressing the flaws in our food supply chain. Food waste is a significant concern that we must address. It’s essential to prioritize building equity for our growers and workers in the agricultural supply chain to ensure we can continue to feed and nourish the world.

Sustainability is crucial, especially in this age of increased technological innovation. But we must work together to find solutions to these challenges. I take great pride in Westfalia’s commitment to sustainability; it’s not just lip service but a tangible dedication to making the world a better place. We’ll continue to do our part and encourage others to join us in this mission.