Sunday, September 4, 2005

Take your pick: tomatoes or cantaloupe? The savviest produce brokers specialize

By Liz Garone
Special to Bee Creative

Next time you walk into a Safeway or Raley's and head to the produce aisle to pick up a juicy, mouthwatering tomato, take a moment to reflect how it got off the vine, into the bin, and into your hands. Just like there are stockbrokers and mortgage brokers, there are also produce brokers: individuals who buy and sell fruits and vegetables on the open market. Some brokers work the retail market while others choose wholesale.

Joseph De La Ossa, 34, chose wholesale, and tomatoes are his trade. In the summer and the early fall, he lives and works in Modesto. The rest of the year, he's based in Fort Myers, Fla. "I don't see a winter. I have to follow the sunshine," he says. De La Ossa works for Bernardi & Associates, Inc., headquartered in Nogales, Ariz., with offices in Turlock, San Diego and Fort Myers.

De La Ossa didn't always specialize in tomatoes. When he first started in the business nine years ago, he dealt with whatever he could get his hands on. That's how most rookie brokers start out. "Cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoesä You name it, I did it," he says. Pretty quickly, he realized that tomatoes were the cream of the crop. "They are the key of all produce. The tomato goes with everything: salads, burgers, pasta," he says.

Much of a produce broker's time is spent in the field and on the telephone, carefully negotiating the best deals for his or her clients with the growers, trying to get the best price and, simultaneously, the freshest produce. "It's a very competitive business. You have to be aggressive," says De La Ossa. "This is a job for someone who is self-motivated and isn't much of an order taker." There are only a handful of brokers in the Modesto area, all of whom are male. De La Ossa knows of only one female broker in the whole state.

Extensive travel comes with the territory, along with multiple places to call home. Out-of-state clients need to know that you are actually handling the produce, so you have to move according to the season. De La Ossa's main clients are based in Michigan and Texas, so they need him to be their eyes and noses. De La Ossa says that, in addition to onsite inspectors, there are a number of ways he personally ensures freshness. "I look at the tomato's appearance. I feel it to see how strong it is. Does it turn soft? Does it hold up? Does it have legs? How long of a shelf life will it have?"

One of De La Ossa's chief competitors, who asked to remain anonymous, splits his time between Modesto and Nogales, Ariz., where his company is also headquartered. When in California, he deals in tomatoes. In Arizona, he brokers everything from watermelons and mangoes to Italian and yellow squash. "It's an adventure, and you learn something new every day," says the veteran broker, who has been in the business 20 years.

Modesto Junior College's Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Department (http://virtual.yosemite.cc.ca.us/agens/index.htm) offers both ag sales and ag marketing classes that are a good introduction to the field. But both De La Ossa and the other broker are adamant that the only true way to learn the business is "hands-on" and from the ground up. "You're going to have to start at the bottom whether you have a degree or not," he says. The ground floor position comes with a fancy title: inspector. As an inspector, "You get to do the grunt work," says De La Ossa. "You listen in on phone conversations and soak it in." Another key to learning the business is getting outside, into the field and the packing shed, and meeting the delivery trucks and following them around town. "You have to learn the product and how to describe it, so it sounds like you know what you're talking about," he says.

In the beginning, the pay is low: roughly $350 a week. But there are perks that don't come with other jobs: a generous monthly car allowance, a gas card, and no harsh winters. There is also the potential for a lot of money down the line. Neither De La Ossa nor his competitor would reveal their own salaries. But, according to De La Ossa, it's quite common for experienced brokers to make upwards of $100,000 a year, usually a combination of salary, commission and bonuses. "The sky's the limit. It's really up to the individual and how hard he wants to work," he says.

Produce brokers need to be good negotiators and have excellent people skills. You never know when you might encounter a problem along the way or a situation that needs smoothing out. "I consider myself the Advil of the business," De La Ossa says. "I take care of the headaches."




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