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Mike Stuart steps down after 40 years

When Mike Stuart was a young man, he approached his future father-in-law to ask for Karen Moffett’s hand in marriage.  

“He asked me how I was going to support her and my idea wasn’t good enough,” said Stuart.  “I made a deal that I would work full-time while Karen finished her degree and then after that I would go back to college and get my degree.”Mike-Stuart

Stuart did just that and unwittingly launched a career at the same time.  While his wife was finishing her college education, Stuart turned his part-time job at an El Rancho Markets in a Southern California community to a full-time gig in the produce department. “That’s where I got the produce bug,” he said.

He did finish his education at California State University at Long Beach, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in political science. Those were the heady days of the 1970s when journalism was revered, basking in the limelight for its role in uncovering the Watergate scandal. Stuart answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times for a communications and writing position for Western Growers Association in Orange County and got the job, combining his communications education with his newfound love of the produce industry. Recently Stuart announced that he was stepping down from his position as president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association after more than 26 years with the organization.

If one story in a young man’s life can epitomize four decades of service to an industry, Stuart’s father-in-law tale is up to the task. It has all the elements that served Stuart well for those 40 years: sense of purpose; accomplishment; leadership; respect for others; and a trade association executive bent on turning the desires of authority into positive outcomes for all parties. Stuart clearly achieved that with his father-in-law and has been walking the same fine line throughout his career.

The young Stuart began his association career in 1979 as a public relations assistant to Les Hubbard, a veteran agricultural industry communications specialist. When Hubbard retired a few years later, Stuart stepped in and continued to climb up the association’s staff ladder. He was named vice president of public affairs under the tutelage of Chief Executive Officer Daryl Arnold and then became senior vice president and the No. 2 man when the organization was bifurcated after Arnold’s departure and Dave Moore took charge of the association side. The other half was involved in providing insurance to the ag sector.

“I worked under Dave for about five years,” Stuart said. “What I wanted was Dave’s job but I didn’t see it happening as it wasn’t the history of the organization to hire (the top slot) from the staff.”

Arnold and Moore had come from the membership ranks and each had led the association as its top volunteer officer before being hired as CEO.

During these years, Stuart traveled extensively for Western Growers and struck up a friendship with George Sorn, his predecessor as the top executive at the FFVA. “In 1991, we went out to dinner with our wives during a trip to Europe,” Stuart recalled. “George told me he would be retiring the next year and asked me if I was interested in the job. I told him I wasn’t interested.”

But the following year, he was enticed to leave the Golden State and set up shop in Florida. “I wanted an opportunity to get a No. 1 slot and this was my chance. I figured it was an interim gig. I’d stay three or five or seven years and then either go back to California or get a position in Washington (DC).”

The kids were young (Nick was 11, Lindsay was 6) and his wife was game. “Karen was fantastic. We all thought we’d only be here for a few years but Karen dug in and developed deep roots and phenomenal friendships and I fell in love with the organization and the Florida industry.”

Stuart has had a very successful run with the organization, but he has determined that it is time to leave and retire. “I love the industry and if there is something I can do to help, I’d love to do it. It is always going to be part of my fabric.  But, I am not going to run another organization.  I am retiring.”

As he is leaving the Florida industry, he noted that it is much different than the one he joined 26 years ago. “The industry has become much more diversified. We have a number of new crops such as a thriving peach industry, pomegranates and olives.”

He has seen citrus greening disease (HLB) test the fortitude of growers, and labor issues continuing to peck away at profitability of all producers. But Stuart is confident that Florida’s natural advantages will allow it to continue to be a vibrant agricultural state. He said the citrus industry is showing tremendous resolve as it continues to look for solutions to HLB and rebuild its industry.

“The citrus crisis is tragic,” he said. “I’ve seen families that have been farming for generations close the doors. There is fear in their eyes. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I think the industry will come back, though it’s not going to be cheap.”

He noted that the industry’s infrastructure was constructed to handle a 200-million carton crop with trees lasting for a generation or two. Today’s citrus crop is only 40-50 million cartons strong, meaning there is much unused capacity. And until a cure is found for HLB, tree life is going to be much shorter with that dynamic playing a crucial role in the profitability of the industry.

He sees experimental work being done in Florida using robotics to harvest strawberries and is convinced technology is going to play a vital role in helping the industry surmount its challenges. “If robotic harvesting of strawberries can succeed, it can be done on any crop,” he said.

One nemesis that Stuart is unhappy about leaving unresolved is immigration reform. “This is one thing that we just can’t solve. I remember working on immigration in the early 1980s, which resulted in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That obviously didn’t solve the problem. Here we are 32 years later and we don’t appear to be any closer to a solution.”

Stuart, who lost his wife to lung disease in 2016, has kids on both coasts, with his son in California and his daughter deeply entrenched in the Florida lifestyle. “My plans are still evolving, but it looks like I might be headed back to California,” he said.

The FFVA is currently conducting an executive search for Stuart’s replacement. “Hopefully, the new executive can be introduced at our next convention in September,” Stuart said. “And I’ve been asked to stay on through the transition for several months.”

He anticipates beginning his retirement in the first quarter of 2019.