Published April 20, 1999
Volume 7, Number 4

So Far, Rich Peterson's Career Choices are Bearing Fruit

An agriculture-related company might seem out of place in Hacienda, a state-of-the-art business community with so many technology-related companies. But agriculture is big business in California. 

"We have over 200 fruit, nut, and vegetable crops and there's no other place in the world that has such diversity," explains Rich Peterson, executive director of the California Prune Board. "Many of these crops dominate in the world arena we grow 70 percent of the world's supply of prunes in California, for example." 

Richard PetersonA native Iowan, Peterson has been around agriculture his whole life. 

"My father was a mechanic at the local International Harvester dealer, so he worked on tractors and combines," he explains. Peterson worked at supermarkets through high school and college, which gave him exposure to food sales and marketing at the retail level. 

"I thought it might be interesting to get involved in marketing, so that's what I pursued in college and grad school," he adds. After finishing his work at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, Peterson worked at Carnation from 1972 to 1975 and with Hunt-Wesson Foods from 1975 to 1978. Pursuing a career in product management, he quickly moved from product management trainee to assistant product manager, overseeing products ranging from pet foods to Carnation Instant Breakfast and snack-pack puddings to Wesson cooking oil. 

After spending three years as marketing director for a smaller, Central Valley foods company, Peterson changed direction slightly, moving from brand-name product management to a position with the California Plum/Peach Advisory Board. 

"I enjoyed it, and still do, because it gives you a broader industry perspective in that you work for all the growers and all the packers," he explains. 

Peterson began his tenure with the California Prune Board in 1986, marketing the state's dried plums throughout the country, as well as in Japan, Europe, and Mexico. 

One interesting aspect of the Board's marketing program is that it's not entirely driven by new products or technological innovations, as are so many consumer products. While new uses and products are created, such as Sunsweet's new pitted prunes with lemon or orange essence, much of the Board's strategy involves learning more about the nutritional and health benefits of the fruit. 

"Prunes are healthful, nutritious products but we're trying to learn more about their attributes and their impact on human health, so we've retained a nutrition advisory panel with some of the noted nutritionists and doctors around the United States," he explains. 

The results have been promising. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study conducted at Tufts University showed that prunes have the highest amount of anti-oxidants of any fruit, with double the level of anti-oxidants found in the second-ranked fruit, raisins. 

"We're having another study at Oklahoma State University that's indicating so far that prunes can reduce the risk of osteoporosis," he says. "It's not completed yet but the preliminary results have been very positive. It's just amazing what we're finding out about the California prune." 

Another innovation initiated by the Board has been in discovering new uses for prunes. 

"Our technical advisor discovered that prune puree, which is basically prunes and water blended together, can be used as an effective fat substitute for baking," Peterson says. "The USDA has been buying puree for several years now and making it available to schools so that they can decrease the fat content and improve the nutritional profile of their baked goods." 

While marketing is his major goal, Peterson ultimately answers to the 1,250 growers and 20 packers who contribute to the Prune Board through government-mandated assessments. 

"We work by committee," he notes. "Knowing how things work in corporations, it's very different here because everything is public our meetings, our minutes. It can lead to challenges as well as opportunities." Fortunately, Peterson knows that opportunities can be grown, and challenges pruned.  


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