"Lettuce" Tell You About a Career in Food SafetyShannon Douglass’ story. Hearing about individuals’ paths into agriculture offers me a chance to learn something new about this diverse field; in this case the topic was Food Safety in produce. Today, I have the pleasure of sharing the journey of another friend and colleague, Johnna Hepner, what brought her to agriculture, and why she is so passionate about her work.
Johnna, currently Director of Technology for the Produce and Marketing Association (PMA), was born and raised in California. As an active member of the 4-H community, Johnna grew up raising many different animals on her family’s 400-acre ranch and competitively barrel raced from a young age.
Johnna pursued a major in Food Science and minor in Nutrition & Chemistry at California State University, Fresno, and joined a Quality Assurance team at start-up lettuce processing company shortly after. Johnna said that she took that step into the industry and “…has not looked back since”.
Packaged bag salads were in their infancy at the time – a great time to come into the industry! The market for prepackaged produce, mostly salads, was just beginning to explode. This sector of the industry was growing from the ground up, incorporating state-of-the-art technology like processing & bagging machines and breathable films. Johnna spent 5 years working on the processing side of the business before transitioning to the sales and buying side. The next 20 years were spent working as a buyer; she had to develop some thick skin and learn the art of negotiation. It is a fast-paced environment and at times can be very stressful when markets are challenging.
The spinach outbreak of 2006 forever changed the produce industry. Johnna had only been working as the Director of Food Safety for Markon Cooperative for 2 weeks when that outbreak occurred. While the company was not directly involved in it, everyone in the industry was impacted in one way or another and food safety became a key component of every produce business.
Senior Scientist, Biologics Project and Product Support, Disease Management, Bayer Division Crop Science
Food safety – how food is grown, harvested, sold, and is safe for the millions of consumers who eat it – is very important to Johnna because she sees her own family in all consumers. Produce safety affects every grower regardless of size or location; the pathogens that cause outbreaks do not discriminate, and even one afflicted person is one too many.
Unlike processed foods, fresh produce does not have a sterilization step that kills off harmful bacteria that could cause foodborne illnesses, for instance cooking meat to a certain temperature, therefore it is crucial to minimize any potential for contamination. It all begins in the field, using Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs. GAPs are proactive steps that reduce the risk of microbial contamination of fruits and vegetables during their production. Examples of GAPs include making sure that workers practice good personal hygiene, that manure fertilizers are properly heat-treated so they don’t transmit pathogens, and that the water used to irrigate and wash crops is safe. Along with GAPs, the produce industry is regulated under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). These regulations cover all farms that grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and the facilities that process those foods. FSMA is the most sweeping reform of U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years.
As with many ag sectors, technology has become an important area of focus and will define the future of the produce industry. Ag tech is hot, and the tech industry is laser focused on helping advance the produce industry. Living near the technology mecca that is the Silicon Valley in combination with the Salinas Valley, or as some call it, the “Salad Bowl” of California, Johnna has an opportunity to see an upsurge of digital farming being piloted such as drones, AI, and automation.
One of the biggest challenges growers face is the lack of available labor – in fact, it is estimated that millions of unharvested crops are plowed under or left in the fields due to a lack of workers to harvest these crops. A few years ago, Johnna had the opportunity to see a new type of romaine lettuce harvester at work. What makes this harvester so unique, is that it uses high-pressure water jets to cut the lettuce leaves from the plant stalk. “It’s amazing to watch”, she says. As California and other Ag states face a serious labor shortage, agriculture must look to sophisticated robots to help pick up the slack. That said, she doesn’t think workers should feel threatened by automation. The robots of the future will work in tandem with skilled human labor.
As we talk, she ponders, “I’m not sure if people know how innovative farmers are and that innovation is nothing new for them.” For thousands of years farming has seen technological advances, from the horse-drawn plows to the combine harvester. “It’s just that the rate of automation is accelerating at a fast pace, mostly out of necessity. Give a farmer an idea, and it won’t take them long to expand and develop it into a concept.”
The United Nations estimates that farmers will have to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 in order to feed the world’s growing population. Ag technology is an exciting place to watch as farmers recognize that it could help them solve challenges surrounding labor, sustainability, water, food safety, and the overall growing demand for food.
Johnna feels passionate about her career. “I love telling people I work in the best industry: we grow and produce the healthiest foods in the world.”
Both myself and Johnna agree, we hope by sharing our stories and passions that we help the next generation identify the many exciting opportunities in an agricultural career that support people and the environment.