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Richard Cowden finds new position at Baloian Farms serves him well

As a seasoned tennis player, Richard Cowden is familiar with the pressures and strategies of the popular sport. Now the 27-year-old California native is learning a different game -- produce sales -- at Baloian Farms in Fresno, CA.

Mr. Cowden was born in Simi Valley, CA, and grew up in Newbury Park, near Thousand Oaks, CA.

He graduated in December 2003 from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo with a degree in business administration and marketing management. He attended San Jose State University prior to transferring to Cal Poly.

Mr. Cowden got his start in the produce industry in 1997 at the Lucky Food Center in Paso Robles, CA, as a utility clerk bagging cherries in the summer when the product went on sale. He recalled "packing box after box of cherries - they came loose and we had to fill the bags. Our hands got pretty red."

He worked in other supermarket produce departments over the years as well as for a farmer friend in Templeton, CA. "We picked three days a week for three different farmers markets in San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and Atascadero, CA.

At Lucky, Mr. Cowden looked up to the produce manager at the time, a man named Terry Talbot. "I was drawn to that department -- everyone goes through that department, "even the vegetarians," he noted.

Attending Cal-Poly further developed his interest in the industry. The institution, he said, is "very much about agriculture and organic ways of doing business."

Another supermarket job at a Food 4 Less in Paso Robles found him working as a produce manager himself and as an associate produce coordinator. "I loved working with the suppliers bringing in the fresh produce," Mr. Cowden said.

His grocery store experience was a factor in making the move to Baloian Farms, where he began work as a produce sales associate in October. "I didn't want to lose my knowledge and wanted to use what I had learned and had experienced," he said. "Even as a kid, my parents always had gardens -- tomatoes etc."

Already at Baloian, "I've been getting a lot of information on what's been sold in the past, and I can feel the pressure building as we plant for the next year," he said. "It takes a lot of timing, a lot of knowledge and skill. I've been very fortunate soaking up as much information as I can."

Mr. Cowden's sales duties include assisting with calls and fielding inquiries and routing them to the correct sales representative. "We focus pretty much year-round on bell peppers; we also do specialty melons and red onions," he said. Products also include eggplant and hard squash, he said, noting that Baloian plans to start an organic program with hard squash.

"I'm focusing a lot on the organic line," he said. "It's fascinating to learn about growing organically, using the soil as your partner."

His specialty commodities are red onions and eggplant.

Mr. Cowden is also involved in Baloian's consolidation program for local growers. "Plus we consolidate for Safeway and do a little logistics work too," he said.

He was preparing to travel to Mexico for Baloian to visit green onion growers there that are certified to sell to the European Union. "I'm going to see their packinghouses and fields," he said.

Another trip is in the offing to Thermal, CA, where much of the company's leaf lettuce is grown. "I'll get to talk to different people in the organization who I don't usually get to see," he said.

He also attended a PACA conference on the rules and vocabulary of the produce industry and said that he is looking forward to attending his first Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit. "I missed it this year -- I can't wait to go next year."

Mr. Cowden described himself as "one of those entrepreneurial kids" whose earliest working experiences included operating a lemonade stand and washing neighbors' cars in his parents' driveway. "I even sold flowers door to door," he said, noting that the project did not go over too well with his mother, whose garden he plundered without permission. "My mom got mad at me," he acknowledged.

In his teens, he worked as a bus boy and dishwasher at Vic's Caf?, a family- style restaurant in Paso Robles. "I'm still good friends with a guy I worked with there," he said.

Another influential endeavor was his senior project in college working with the Southern San Luis Obispo Boys & Girls Club. "I felt like I was helping the community by helping the kids," Mr. Cowden said. The program, for children ages 8 to 13, had an enrollment cost of just $10 a year.

"It provided a safe place for the community. That was a good way to end my college career," he said.

He learned a lot from those experiences, he said. "Responsibility, punctuality -- being able to get down into things and getting your hands dirty to make things clean," he said. "Being proud of what you do, pride in those paychecks. And teamwork -- it's fun working with people, too."

In his role at Baloian, youth has its advantages, Mr. Cowden said. "When you start at the bottom, there's nowhere to go but up," he said. "Each sale you learn a lot and you meet a lot of people - when you're new, you get a lot of opportunities to meet people who are interested [in your potential]."

On the flip side, as the new kid on the block, "you're the first one to get there and the last one to leave. It takes a lot of energy and skill," he said.

"You're more likely to make a mistake because you don't know any better," he added. "You have to learn from your mistakes, think positive and don't ever stop."

His first week on the job was perhaps the most challenging he has encountered so far, he recalled. "We were working with a new system, changes that had occurred a few days before I started, so everybody was really under the gun," he said.

Things have calmed down since then, and now every day is his best day, Mr. Cowden said. "Learning and doing things right and getting recognized for it - the positive feedback that you get helps you get stronger and faster [and] as accurate as possible. This job requires a lot of attention to detail."

In his leisure time, Mr. Cowden is an avid tennis player. "I'm a fierce competitor. My dad started with me when I was younger," he said. He played singles and doubles in high school and was captain of the tennis team. "The key to doing well in tennis is letting the other person make the mistakes," he said.

He followed up his high school sports career with tennis courses at San Jose State, where he learned some new techniques.

"I still play with friends," he said, adding that he is trying to get into league play in Fresno, where he now lives. "Tennis is fun because you can play at night," he said.

With his girlfriend of 15 months, Ginger Forgione, he enjoys traveling throughout the state, especially soaking up the beauty of the California coastline and sampling the different kinds of cuisine. "People are friendly along the coast. It's just beautiful there," Mr. Cowden said.

He hopes to start a garden at his Fresno home. "I do love to garden and tend the lawn," he said. "It's also fun because I work in produce to garden with produce - to grab a few tomatoes and make a salad."

Family is important to Mr. Cowden. His sister, Laura Ervine, her husband, Shane, and two nieces, Emily and Rachel, live in Paso Robles. His father, Cecil, lives in Indiana now and travels frequently to California.

Mr. Cowden's mother, Vera, died a few years after he graduated from high school. "She was an inspiration for me to go to college and to keep going," he said.

Keeping going is what he intends to do at Baloian, too. "I just feel very fortunate to be around the people I work with. They are very knowledgeable," he said. "I feel privileged to be a part of what I'm doing and part of this organization, very humble and thankful."