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OPMA's Matthew Ecker looks to give back to produce industry

When Matthew Ecker looks back on his introduction to the produce industry, fond memories flood his mind.

"I was three or four years old riding the forklift with my dad, that's what I'd look forward to every weekend," the 23-year-old Mr. Ecker said about his visits to the warehouse of Vineland Growers Co-Operative, where his dad, Michael, serves as vice president of sales and marketing.

Mr. Ecker worked with his father for about seven years as a teenager, but when he turned 19 he decided to venture off for a summer and work for one of the members of the cooperative -- Andrewes Farms.

"I decided to go on my own and work on my own to learn the background of everything," he said. "It opened my eyes to everything that going on and how much work actually goes into the farming industry in general. When you're putting in 65-70 hours a week, you learn a lot and you appreciate all the hard work that goes into it. My social life was pretty well dismal, but it was enough to get me motivated to stay in this industry."

And stay in the produce industry he did.

While he was earning a bachelor's degree in business administration -- with honors -- at Wilfrid Laurier University, Mr. Ecker spent the summer of 2005 working with Faye Clack Communications, a Mississauga, ON-based public relations firm that specializes in the food industry. There, he helped promote peaches on behalf of the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers' Marketing Board.

"I learned a lot more about the industry, and [working at Faye Clack] allowed me to be an advocate of the industry, which is always good," he said.

After graduation, Mr. Ecker started his current position, associate vice president of the Ontario Produce Marketing Association.

"The association's goal is to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables in Ontario, and for me, a guy who has worked in this industry basically his whole life, it is a good way to start off and give back to the industry that's given me so much," he said. "I've found the industry to be very welcoming. It's very small and close-knit, and I've surrounded myself with some really great mentors who are also leaders who've helped me along. I've learned a substantial amount in the last two months."

Although he was "quite intimidated" at first, the more time he has spent with the people in the industry, the easier it has become.

"Working here at the OPMA, everyone's been welcoming," he said. "They've made it easy."

Though his new career in produce keeps him busy, Mr. Ecker still finds time to enjoy his hobbies.

"I love golf," he said with pride.

Last summer, he did a three-month stint working at Portmarnock Golf Club located outside Dublin, Ireland, where he worked on the greens crew as well as doing some caddying. After leaving Ireland, Mr. Ecker spent another month backpacking across Europe making stops in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Amsterdam, England and Scotland.

It was at the last stop where he got to do what some golfers only dream of: play a round of golf at the famous Old Course at St. Andrews, one of the courses that is the site of the renowned British Open golf tournament. Even though he has been on the job only since May 7, Mr. Ecker's knowledge of golf has led to his first major project for the OPMA: utilizing his expertise to organize its annual golf tournament, which will take place Sept. 12 at the Lionhead Golf & Country in Brampton, ON.

Mr. Ecker also described himself as a "big hockey player," and said that he has played as a goalie for two local teams since age five.

Mr. Ecker said that he hasn't given much thought as to where and how far his young produce career might take him.

"I am very comfortable where I am," he said. "It's a great job, marketing produce. The ethics of marketing produce are strong -- you're not marketing fast food, you're marketing a healthy lifestyle for everybody.

"Not many people my age have a goal of starting off and pursuing this industry," he continued. "It's a rarity, but I guess you could say I'm the exception to the rule. I hope to become really involved in this industry in the future and build my life around this industry."