(UPDATED COVERAGE, May 5) NEW ORLEANS — The winner of The Packer’s Produce Woman of the Year award grew up in a family farming operation, but her career path led her to other produce companies and eventually the head of the United Fresh Produce Association’s board.

Outgoing United Fresh chairwoman Steffanie Smith, lauded by colleagues as “very bright, willing to learn and listen,” received the award from Packer Editor Greg Johnson May 4 at the United Fresh 2011 exposition.

Another colleague said “there’s no question she was a future CEO.”

Smith, who was born into a third-generation family potato, onion and apple business, Skone & Connors Produce Inc., Warden, Wash., was raised to not only take directions but gain courage from learning from the bad ones, one of Smith’s family members said.

After earning a political science degree from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1989, Smith joined the then-named United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association as manger of member services. Four years later, she was sales and marketing manager for National Pre-cut Produce Marketing in Salinas, Calif., where learned operational skills, and then Pacific Pre-Cut Produce, Tracy, Calif. She later became president of deli and prepared foods after Salinas-based Taylor Farms Inc. acquired Pacific Pre-Cut. She joined River Point as CEO in 2007.

“If there was an outline one would make to become a produce industry leader, surely it would look like the one taken by this year’s honoree,” Johnson said.

Smith was a member of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Fresh-Cut Produce Association board when it merged with United Fresh in 2006. She joined United Fresh’s board, then its executive committee and became chairwoman in 2010.

Johnson said Smith’s philosophy and leadership heading United Fresh focused on nutrition and raising produce consumption. He said she has become a tireless supporter of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s snack program and most recently, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools effort.

Smith said the award shocked her.

“It is an incredible honor,” she said. “I am incredibly passionate about this industry and what we can do and can accomplish if we all come together to find a solution. I am humbled and honored to be recognized. It is such a surprise and a pleasure. When you do what you love and get recognized for it, it’s just a bonus.”

The Packer recognizes River Point Farms CEO

Pamela Riemenschnieder

Steffanie Smith, outgoing United Fresh chairwoman, accepts The Packer's Produce Woman of the Year Award from Packer Editor Greg Johnson.