(Aug. 18, 12:25 p.m.) CHARLEVOIX, Quebec — Whether it was dressing up as gangster molls, dancing to a girl band or singing karaoke until 4 a.m., the women of the Quebec Produce Marketing Association proved these girls know how to have fun.

As the first female president in the association’s 61-year history, Bernadette Hamel’s rallying cry of “Let’s Go, Girls!” when elected a year ago echoed through the three-day conference Aug. 14-16. Hamel is senior director of the Quebec fruit and vegetable division for Montreal-based Metro Richelieu Inc.

The business session of the conference included a presentation by artist-turned-apple visionary Stephanie Beaudoin, who’s determined to make iced cider a Quebec icon. The compay she ownes with husband Francois Pouliot, La Face Cachee de la Pomme (the apple’s hidden face), produces and sells 200,000 bottles of cider a year in 15 countries. Beaudoin said each bottle of Neige cider contains the juice of 10 pounds of Canada’s mcintosh apples.

At the industry brunch honoring women’s contributions to the produce industry, guest speaker Sophie Thibault, North America’s first female TV anchor of a late-night newscast, brought delegates to their feet for a standing ovation after a speech detailing her rise to the top in the male-dominated world of TV news.

QPMA’s newly elected president, Christian Chouinard, Loblaw’s Montreal-based director of product development in Canada, said he admires Thibault for realizing her goals.

“She’s an example to follow,” Chouinard said, “and I think the women in the audience recognized and really appreciated that.”

Grand finale

The closing banquet attracted a record 500 people representing the Quebec produce industry, plus several American companies and the first-ever Mexican delegate, said Anne-Emilie Thibault, QPMA’s communication director.

In an address to delegates after a five-course dinner featuring foie gras, lobster, a bouquet of hydroponic lettuce and wild Quebec blueberries, Hamel said the QPMA has accomplished its goals in the past year, firming up links with partners and regional associations, presenting a brief to the commission on the future of Quebec’s agricultural industry, welcoming the provincial government’s new Put Quebec on Your Plate campaign and continuing its own successful I Love 5 to 10 Servings a Day campaign.

She praised the hard work of the association’s all-female full-time staff, led by executive director Sophie Perreault, and the delegates themselves.

“We’re not competitors when we come here,” she said. “We’re collaborators. Everyone is working toward the same goal — to get the consumer’s attention and make sure we promote our products.”

In an interview before dinner, Hamel said it’s unfortunate that there are still not many women getting into key positions.

“In my career, I’ve been lucky that all the men who supported me were important in the workplace and in both industry associations,” Hamel said. “They gave me the opportunity to develop my self-confidence and trusted me to make good decisions.”

The final evening included a tribute to Martin Desrochers, president of HydroSerre Mirabel Inc., Mirabel, Quebec, who was awarded the QPMA’s Pillar award for his contribution to the industry. Desrochers was The Packer’s 2007 Canadian Produce Man of the Year.

Chouinard said there are challenges facing the produce industry in the next year.

“Demands around food safety and quality, sustainable development and, of course, the price of our products, are pushing us to continually push the envelope,” he said. “That’s also true for our producers, because the competition is fierce and is now coming from the every corner of the Earth.

“The challenge for our industry and our association,” Chouinard said, “is to reconcile a number of strong and sometimes contradictory trends: Buy locally but maintain supplies year-round, provide variety but minimize the distance products must travel and accept globalization but not the resulting environmental costs.”