(Feb. 11, MANAGING EDITOR'S COLUMN) An organizer. An executive. A fund-raiser. A leader.

In the end, it didn’t really matter that Bonnie Fernandez didn’t have extensive food safety or produce industry experience. Her other qualifications made her the best hire as the new director of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis.

Still executive director of the California Wheat Commission, Fernandez said she was surprised at how well the commission prepared her so far for her new responsibilities, which start officially March 1.

“In the last 30 days, I’ve seen so many similarities,” she said about comparing her job with wheat to her new produce position. “For instance, in the Imperial Valley and Yuma (Ariz.), produce is often rotated with wheat, so I know a lot of those growers.”

She also said since her move to the produce safety center became official Feb. 1, she’s heard from many people in the wheat industry who have told her their experience in produce.

Her first goal in her new job will be to meet as many produce people as possible, but she said specifically she wants to get to know the advisory board’s 32 members.

Tim York, chairman of the center’s advisory board, and president of Markon Cooperative Inc., Salinas, said with all the produce industry knowledge already on the board, it wasn’t as crucial to find it in a director.

“With Bonnie’s strengths — particularly, managing people — we saw her as the complete package,” he said.

York said he plans to be very active in the center, especially as Fernandez gets started.

“She said she wants a hands-on chairman and hands-on board,” he said.

Both York and Fernandez acknowledge an important part of her job will be in the fundraising arena. The center is financed by a $550,000 grant from California and two $2 million dollar pledges from the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and Taylor Farms LLC, Salinas, Calif.

The center must find additional funding before too long.

Fernandez said she has strong experience in fundraising from the wheat commission. For example, she was part of a group that procured a $5 million grant a few years ago to fight a wheat disease.

Along those lines, Fernandez said she feels she won’t be overwhelmed the next time there’s a food safety crisis in produce, like the spinach incident in the fall of 2006.

She said she dealt with a wheat disease in 1996 that rendered the U.S. crop unavailable to export to more than 70 countries.

Living in California, she said it was impossible to ignore the news reports during the spinach crisis, and she could sympathize with what the produce industry endured.

Fernandez showed her diplomatic skills when this editor tried to get her to reveal her favorite fruit or vegetable or fresh produce dish. No comment, she said, but she does consider herself a foodie and a major fresh produce consumer.

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Meanwhile, York recently found himself the target in a strange mistaken identity case.

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture filed an administrative action against Timothy C. York of T&R Fresh Produce, Modesto, Calif., claming violations of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act.

Markon’s Timothy E. York, of course, had nothing to do with it.

York said he first got a call on this case in August, when Meuers Law Firm, Naples, Fla., a PACA specialist, came looking for its clients’ money.

When York explained it was a different Tim York, the firm quickly retracted its claim.

“We thought he just got a new job at Markon,” said Larry Meuers, owner of Meuers Law Firm.
Meuers said he has since found Timothy C. York, and the lawsuit is proceeding as usual.

Markon’s York said it was odd having someone else with his name working in the produce industry, but more strangely, it wasn’t the first time he’s had a mistaken identity incident.

“In Oxnard, years before I started at Markon, around 1980 or so, a Tim York drowned off the coast in Southern California,” he said. “I had a customer call me from the East Coast who’d heard the news, and was relieved it wasn’t me.”

Sure enough, York looked in the newspaper, and a Tim York had drowned.

Not dead, and not delinquent, Timothy E. York charges on in the produce industry.