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In this episode of the “Spilled Salt” podcast, Maureen Ballatori interviews Alisha Albinder-Camac, the fourth-generation owner and operator of Hudson River Fruit Distributors. Hudson River Fruit Distributors is involved in growing, packing, and distributing New York State apples, both those they grow themselves and those sourced from other farming partners in the state.
From working in finance at companies like Merrill Lynch to working as a produce buyer for an online grocer called Fresh Direct, Alisha’s diverse background in finance, sales, marketing, and retail, provides a unique lens for the management of the family farm.
Alisha and Maureen delve into the packaging work they’ve done for Hudson River Fruit and the creation of their “Little Chief” line of apples. Alisha explains how they aimed to market smaller apples that didn’t make it to store shelves as a premium product for retail, catering to various customers, not just kids.
Maureen and Alisha also discuss the challenges and benefits of working on a generational farm. Alisha highlights the significance of technology in enabling greater efficiency and decision-making in agriculture, especially for family-owned farms. She also acknowledges the growing role of women in agriculture, leveraging their multitasking abilities and creativity in running successful farming operations.
Looking ahead, Alisha is excited about technology advancements that can extend the availability of domestic apples throughout the year, benefiting both producers and employees. The discussion also touches on the importance of consumer feedback, as positive responses reinforce effective marketing strategies.
Listen in to learn more about how the experiences and perspectives of a woman in agriculture and the dynamic interplay between traditional farming practices and modern technological advancements are helping Alisha grow her fourth-generation farm.
This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.
Maureen Ballatori: I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt, a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage, and agriculture industries. Today’s guest is Alisha Albinder-Camac. She is the fourth-generation owner-operator at Hudson River Fruit Distributors. They grow, pack and distribute New York State apples, some of which they grow themselves, some of which they source from other farming partners in New York State.
I was really interested in bringing Alicia in for the conversation today because she has a background not only in finance and experience in sales and marketing, but she also spent time on the retail side as a produce buyer, which I think is just a fascinating area of experience to be able to bring back to the farm, to bring that knowledge and expertise right into farming operations.
We’ve also worked with Alicia on some packaging work, which we’ll talk about on the podcast a little bit today. And she speaks to some of the things that are interesting to her as a woman in agriculture. So enjoy the conversation.
I’m excited to jump into some of your background here for the Spilled Salt podcast. So, well, let’s jump right in. I would love to start with a little bit of your background. You grew up on a farm, but you spent some time away from the farm too, right?
Alisha Albinder-Camac: Yes, yeah, so I grew up on a farm in Milton, New York, which is near Poughkeepsie, about an hour and a half north of Manhattan. And it’s an apple farm, and my family has been apple farmers for, well, since the 60s.
This year, actually, our business is celebrating 60 years. So that’s pretty exciting. And I grew up and went to high school, went to college in Boston, and lived in New York City afterward for a little bit, and then came back home to work with my family.
Maureen: That’s awesome. And talk a little bit about the work that you did while you were in Boston and New York City.
Alisha: So I went to school for finance. I always knew that I wanted to come back home to the farm. I always was business-minded and always really enjoyed all the different aspects of what we do, whether it’s farming, the sales side of things, the distribution and logistics, or the marketing aspect. So I knew it was something that would really hit all the bases for me as I came back and furthered my career.
But I wanted to go out and explore the world, which I did. And I went to Northeastern and Boston I did a five-year program there where I got to work at a few different finance companies in New York City. So I worked for Merrill Lynch and I worked for a hedge fund and got some of the real corporate finance world experience and then after that, I actually had a job working at Fresh Direct which is an online grocer as a produce buyer.
I got to see the industry in produce from the other side and that was really fun. I got to work there for a few years. All of those things gave me a lot of experience in just seeing how the rest of the world works and different career paths. It made me a better and more well-rounded person here at Hudson River to have that outside exposure.
Absolutely. And that’s so smart for you to go into, you know, real-world experience, both on the finance side and on the retail side to gain a better kind of behind-the-scenes experience on what are produce buyers looking for you learned firsthand so that you could bring that experience back to the farm.
Yeah, absolutely. And it was better to have it be taught by someone not other than my family. To work with other people and kind of see how the industry works without having to be a shadow underneath someone else. And so that was great.
Then when I came back to Hudson River in 2013, I had more of a sales office management role. I was working more on the finance side of things. I did that for about five years where it was more finance and operations focused.
I’ve moved over to the sales and marketing side for the past five years. So it was all of the things in anybody’s life really just kind of lead you to the next step.
Having the ability to make sure I understand how the finance of the company works has made me a better business person and running a company, understanding how marketing works and just the from creating packaging. And then how does it actually get to the store? How does it go to store level? How do you present it to a buyer? I’ve had some successes and I’ve had some failures. The ones that just like didn’t make it, didn’t get off the ground best, you know, better than the other ones, so.
Maureen: Yeah. Well, I want to lead into that and talk about that a little bit in terms of some of the lines of branded apple products that you’ve created that are unique to Hudson River Fruit. Can you talk about those a little bit?
Alisha: Sure, yeah, so in 2014, right after I came back, we decided to do a Little Chief line. So our main company brand is called Red Chief, and we are on Old Indian Road, and it’s actually a road that the Indians in the Shawangunk Valley used to travel on to go to the Hudson River.
So it has a really nice historical meaning and background. So our brand and it was our box label for a long time, was… a Red Chief Indian was the tribe that was here before we were.
I always thought little kids, even old people, it was more for little kids, but some people just want small apples, right? What happens to those small apples that don’t make it onto the shelf? Because there is no reason [not to] really, like how can we market them?
So we came up with Little Chief, which was, when I look back now with where the original packaging was and where we are, it’s like crazy. But just like everything, it evolves over time. And it’s been great.
So I think we nailed it in terms of getting, we had the right product to put in it, we had an audience to market to, and then we had to keep tweaking the packaging to really resonate, to make sure that it was encompassing what we were trying to go for. So that was a really exciting thing. And we’ve had, I can remember off the top of my head, probably four different versions. And then we landed on a whole family line that was created by 29 Design Studio, which is every time anybody sees that packaging is just like it has the utmost comments.
But I think that what I learned through the process is that the packaging is going to sell your product. You could have the best product in the world, but if you’re not relating to the customer, if you’re not matching them with their color palette or art graphics, they may not give you a chance. So I think that’s a really interesting facet of marketing that you know, has a lot of value.
Maureen: I just had dinner the other night. I just came back from the Fancy Food Show in New York City a couple of days ago. And I had dinner with a buyer from Whole Foods who said the exact same thing, that if you can’t sell the consumer on the packaging, you know, then they’re not going to pick it up. They’re not going to turn around the other side and look at the nutrition profile. They’re not going to give it a chance, you know, in bringing it home.
But I think that one of the things that I’ve always loved about your creation of the Little Chief line of apples, is that you really focused on solving a consumer problem, a unique problem, right?
From both sides in terms of you were taking a product that didn’t have another use in your current production life cycle, right? These smaller apples that you weren’t really using elsewhere as well as on the consumer side in terms of, I remember years ago when we did the first one of those, it was intended for little kids and something that mom and dad, the parents, can also have in their lunch to eat at a limited time or have as a snack. So I think it’s the unique creation of that line of products too, that helped it stand out.
Alisha: Yeah, definitely. And also we wanted to be more of a premium in our market.
Usually, small apples go to schools and institutions, but they are unbranded. There’s nothing special or exciting about them. So I’m like, well, why can’t these be in retail? And how can we get somebody to purchase them? And we would even get comments like, apples are too big sometimes in stores or in backstops.
It was good to be able to say, well, we have some small options. And I think as we learned throughout the years, we would get a lot of comments from parents or older people that just being like, these are the perfect sizes, I only want a few bites. And I was like, wow, this is just for kids.
Our initial packaging was more cartoony and kid-focused. And then I was like, well, I don’t want to break away from that because I want to make sure that this could go for anybody. You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy that.
Maureen: Can you talk about the R&D internally on that a little bit? Like, was it you sort of realizing from your experience in retail at FreshDirect that kind of helped get the idea flowing on that? Was it an internal brainstorm?
I’m kind of trying to get to the bottom of how did you come to that idea to sort of help other brands that might have what could be considered a more commodity product.
Alisha: So I think it kind of stemmed from like we do have a small apple-sized bag, but it’s more of like a lower trade It trades for low dollar value, and also it goes to not high-end stores.
So I was just more like, well, why can’t these go to a higher-end store? Well, we need to make a new bag for it because the current bag we had doesn’t work. So that was I think kind of where it stemmed from and then also just talking to and interviewing our retail partners and the buyers and saying like, is this something that you guys think that you would use? Is this something that you would like? Do you think there’s a need for it? And they were like, yeah, I definitely think so. Like, let’s give it a shot.
That was part of it as well, is having somebody that was willing to give you a try and being able to validate saying, yeah, I think that’s a good idea.
If I went to them and said, you know, I want to sell like half apples, I don’t know, something like, let’s put apples in half and they’d be like, that’s not a good idea. You know, like you need to always be able to bounce your ideas off of somebody, and who better than the person that’s actually going to cut a PO.
So that definitely was helpful. And sometimes they even give us ideas. I mean our new version of packaging that we are currently in now, the initial one was called Little Honeys. That was created, really, for a specific retailer by the Vice President of produce, because he said, you should have a bag that says New York on it.
And that is screaming that these apples are from New York and everybody wants small Honeycrisps because they always sell big ones in the store. So, he kind of drove and helped develop that with us. And that was really awesome.
Then from there, the bag was so popular and great. We were like, let’s do a line extension and do these for all of them. So we have little Galas, little Macs, little Fujis, little Pinks, little Honeys. And now we have a family of little apples. So, you know, the idea stems a lot of them and if you have something that’s good, keep going on that and trying to expand it to keep making it bigger.
Maureen: Yeah, and make sure that your relationship with your retailer is a true relationship, right? And one that you can have that kind of exchange of ideas. You have other branded Apple products too, right? Can you talk about that a bit?
Alisha: Yeah, we work with some other collaborative brands.
So I wasn’t really involved on the creative side of that, on those brands, but they are brands. And in our industry in general, apple branding has become a lot more popular over the past 10 years.
I mean, when I even first started, it was new, 10 years ago. So things don’t happen or change quickly in the produce industry, but then all of a sudden you realize that they’re different. It kind of is like a slow creep.
There are a ton of managed varieties because like, you know, there are so many apple varieties and how do you get a consumer to know what’s the difference between one and the other and why and really how why they should pay more money for one variety or another. If all apples are the same, why pay more for this one than that one.
So branding became really important in our industry. because people want to differentiate and say, well, this is a special variety that is going to taste better than your generic. You know, it’s a higher-end experience.
And with that comes, you know, marketing behind it and trying to gain people to recognize the name so that if they go to a supermarket, they’re like, I’m looking for a Snapdragon apple, not I’m looking for red apples or just an apple. And that’s why over time, we’ve really been able to use marketing as a tool to influence shoppers’ behavior and hope to influence where and how they spend their money and more of a targeted approach.
Maureen: Talk about that on the farm side though. What did that decision and conversation look like to be on a generational farm? You understand branding probably in a different way than your family and the previous generations that are still there making those decisions. And you’re talking about putting, paying managed fees, right? To put different varieties of apples in the ground. Talk about it from that side a little bit.
Alisha: Yeah, I mean, you’re definitely taking a leap of faith and you’re hoping that what the decisions that you make are going to work out. I mean, there are a lot of branded varieties in the marketplace.
So I think everybody had the same idea at the same time. Like, let’s all make our own special variety and they’re all going to yield a lot of high dollar returns and it’s going to be great. We figured out the answer and then everybody did it and that was not the outcome. Everyone was like, there are too many branded varieties in the marketplace. Like it’s hard to go to market with something that’s new.
That’s a risk on the grower side, for sure. I mean, it’s definitely, you’re taking a risk. I know if I plant a gala, I’m going to have a home for it, and it’s going to yield me X, Y, and Z, and it’s pretty middle of the road. But if I take a risk on something that I could get more money for, or maybe less, so I think it does have a big impact on the farm.
I don’t think that any farmer should go too heavy in anything, really. I mean, I think diversity is your best friend in terms of variety, assortment. and being able to offer a full slate because not, you know, a customer doesn’t come and just buy one thing from you, they want to buy a lot of different things. I think that that’s important as well.
Maureen: Yeah, agreed. I think that’s with all things too, right? Marketing, it’s, you know, kind of one of the key tactics there too is diversification to make sure that you’re not putting too many eggs in one basket.
What is the makeup of the farm? How many acres are you farming and where are they?
Alisha: Yeah, so we’re farming 450 acres right now. We have about 250 in New York State and then 200 in Vermont. But above that, we represent about, I don’t know, like we represent 75 different growers in New York State and New England.
So we have a big footprint, bigger than ourselves, and we do that in the sales and marketing of their fruit. So I mean, marketing from a different perspective of just our own company brand.
You know, we have branded ourselves as being a fourth-generation family-owned-and-operated company, which we are. I’m lucky to work with my dad and my brother here every day, hand in hand. And that’s a really special thing.
And I think that a lot of retailers like to know that, you know, hey, I’m working with a person, not a corporation, a family that I can go and visit them and talk to them and have dinner with them. I think that means a lot.
We have our own farms and our own network, in terms of our own truck drivers and our own packing houses, but we also have a bigger umbrella besides that handles a lot of other family farm’s fruits.
I mean, there are certain growers that we go back four generations, five generations with, and my great-grandfather worked with their grandfather, and that’s pretty cool to be able to continue to look at different farmers, just staying farmers and helping to make sure that is sustainable.
Maureen: That is cool. I love that.
I’m going to hit you with a stat. So USDA says that 96% of all US farms are family farms. And so I know you just mentioned your fourth generation at Hudson River Fruit. What is it like working on a generational farm?
Alisha: Um, it’s great. I mean, there’s, there’s a lot of benefits to it and it’s hard, too, sometimes. I mean, I happen to get along really well with my dad and my grand and my brother. And I got along great with my grandfather when he was more active in a day-to-day role.
There’s a lot of responsibility, I guess I’ll say. There’s a lot of things that are happening and there’s a lot of years of history and it’s. There’s always something to learn. I mean, it’s no matter how much you know, there’s like so much more. It’s kind of this never been a challenge to try to get information from generations of time.
Maureen: Right. And another stat for you. In 2017, USDA, again, reported that 36% of US producers were women, which is a pretty big minority when you consider the whole grand scheme of farming in the US.
What are some of the challenges that you think especially affect women in agriculture?
Alisha: I guess I’ll start with the benefits and then go into the challenges because I was in an interview with my aunt and she actually answered this question. I thought she had a really great answer.
Technology has been women’s best friend in terms of agricultural space because back in the day when the only way to farm was to get on a tractor and do it yourself, I mean, there are obviously physical limitations of women, in that respect.
But I think now that we have technology as a tool to be able to manage better. We are better equipped to run any company or farming specifically because it’s not, you don’t have to have the labor intensity of it in order to be aware and in it. So I think that that’s one of the benefits of it.
I think the initial question was: what are the challenges? I mean the challenges are also breaking industry norms so to say, but I think that if I look around now, I would say that 70% of our buyers are women in terms of who is actually working in the industry now, from not a farming perspective, but from like on the other side from retailers.
There are so many women and great and really smart people and I really think it’s because just we are better multi-taskers.
Nobody can do more than a mom with kids. I mean, like, literally. You know how to do everything at the same time. It’s just like how you have to be.
So I think that’s in produce when you have to juggle so many things at the same time and you have so many things flying at you. I think women are really well-equipped to handle that. Not that men aren’t, but I do think that we have a certain skill set to juggle a lot of things at once.
Maureen: Yeah, that’s I love that. And you’re absolutely right about technology. I’ve never really thought about it that way. But, you know, even from the way the, you know, women were often historically have been in the farm management role.
So even when you think about that and the less physicality of going out on the farm and running the tractors and loading equipment and that kind of thing, and some of the technology-aided things that are out there now, even when it comes to the running of the day to day of the business. Technology is a huge helper in efficiency and analysis and all of that.
What are some of the things that you look for when you analyze the opportunities or effectiveness on the farm?
Alisha: I mean, I think there’s a lot of things that come into play and I think capacity is one of them. I mean, there’s a lot of great technology out there, but you have to know who your crew is. You have to know who your staff is. You have to know how much space you have.
I mean, there’s a lot of great machinery out there that I wish I could implement, but do I have enough room in my warehouse to house it? Do I have enough space? Is my operator talented enough to figure it out? And I think that that’s some of the things that are in my brain when I’m thinking about all these ideas. Like, oh my God, look at this really awesome…
Actually, there’s a perfect example. We had an app that was pretty cool. That was introduced to us last year that would help you take the size of a bin, of how many apples were there, and take a picture. And I’m like, this, all this information would be great. We’d love to try it.
But at the end of the day, we didn’t have the infrastructure to support that. We had a crew coming in from way too many places, going to way too many places. The operator wasn’t consistent enough in taking those pictures in order for it to give us the knowledge that we needed. And then even though it would be good to have, I realized I never really needed to reflect back on it.
So sometimes there are things that are there that you’re like, wow, this is great, but I think you really need to understand your business and know what is going to work for you and not work for you instead of chasing everything that flies by and saying we want to be the technologically advanced company.
And I always am forward thinking and my dad’s are not as a good balance because he’s always like, we don’t need that, or like, that’s not going to work. And I’d be like, why? And he’d say, because we don’t have enough physical space here for him to implement something like that. And then I’ll realize that his limits, everyone has limitations no matter what they are, and you have to work around them and figure out ways to adjust.
Maureen: I think that’s one of the beautiful things about a generational farm is the differing perspectives there based on kind of your access to technology growing up is very different from your dad or your grandfather.
And so the kind of comfort level with implementing things like that is one thing, but also being able to rely on each other’s expertise in that vein, right?
You have a different perspective of what might be valuable compared to your dad and you too can, you know, kind of balance that out to be valuable for each other. And I think that’s one of the really unique things about generational farms in particular.
Alisha: Yeah, absolutely. And everybody in general has a different perspective when you add that generational thing. And he knows what worked and didn’t work for him. And certain things that I push for, they end up working out great. And he’s like, oh my God, how could we live without this? But in the end, there are certain things I’ll do. And he’s like, I knew it wasn’t going to work out. So it’s a hit.
Maureen: What are some of the emerging trends that you’re following for the future of agriculture?
Alisha: You know, again, I think it’s just leaning on technology to better run businesses and business decisions, I should say, because there’s just like always challenges, whether it’s labor challenges and getting people here or making sure that they’re tracking their hours and rotating shifts and things like that as the world becomes more competitive and things cost more money and being able to really like tune into where you can save and where you can be a better operator.
I think it’s one of the things that we’re focusing on here. How can we be more efficient with the space we have, with the people we have, and constantly driving that forward? I mean, it’s a lot of work to just even do that part of it.
Then another challenge and things that we have is just the session planning and making sure that the team that we have and the people that are here, that there’s a longevity to our business and that we’re not like waking up one day and being like, oh my God, all these people are retiring and we have no way to follow up after because like institutional knowledge you take for granted.
We don’t even realize his institutional knowledge until you have somebody new start and you’re just like, oh my god, this person knows nothing about our company and it’s like so hard to bring them up to speed to somebody who’s been there 20 years or even five years is a long time.
Well, and it’s just like you said, you know, you’re constantly learning still from after all the years that you’ve been back on the farm and growing up there, you know, you learn a lot too.
And so even with that, you mentioned earlier on in the conversation that you’re still learning every day from your dad and, you know, from your grandfather, from when he was more actively involved. There’s a lot that comes from that. Are there any on the technology side?
I’m going to dig a little further into that with you before we wrap up here. Is, is there anything coming down the pike in particular? that you’re excited about in terms of agriculture trends, whether that’s technology in particular with tracking tools or other extensions of health and life of the apple itself or farming practices like regenerative agriculture?
Alisha: Yeah, I mean, I think even just like technology and being able to have domestic apples for longer periods of time in a year is going to be great. I mean, people are going to be able to like have apples 12 months a year, grown in New York State, from a New York producer.
Those jobs, people’s jobs that normally we would have to lay off for months in the summer can continue to be a full 12-year month-to-year cycle. And that’s all driven by technology, having the technology to hold the fruit for longer, having the technology to take out the bad fruit once you’re packing it by internal defect sorting.
So that’s some of the technology on the business side, or on the production operational side.
And then in terms of on the retail side, I think there’s a lot more data and insight into what varieties are working, what varieties are not working, what does that look like? What is a retailer going to want from me in five years? How am I going to be able to deliver?
Because with apples, I have to plant something right now in order to have a crop five years from now. So I gotta make the right decision, and I have to bet a lot of money on it because if it doesn’t work out well, then that’s, there’s not, you know, there’s always a second outlet. It may not be your best option, but there’s, you know, there’s a way out.
Maureen: Yeah, that’s great. I love that you look at both sides of the field like that. So naturally, you know, based on your experience is wonderful.
Anything I didn’t ask you about that you think is worth mentioning?
Alisha: No, I mean I think that people should eat a lot of New York apples.
Maureen: I couldn’t agree more. Start with the Little Chief line.
Alisha: I guess to hear from people because I think that we get a lot of positive compliments from people loving the packaging, loving the product in the packaging, liking the story. So when you develop marketing stuff, you’re thinking about the consumer and how they’re going to digest that.
And when you hear from those people, you’re like, oh, that worked. That’s great. It was worth putting our picture or the QR code [on the packaging] so they could link to our website. Any of that kind of stuff I think helps consumers. Tell people that you like their products, if you do, because they appreciate it.
Maureen: That’s excellent advice. I will make an effort to do that more too. That’s a great point. Well, thanks for taking the time for the conversation, Alicia. I’m very excited to push this out and share it with the world. Thanks for taking the time.