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Angela Bezon turns passion for farming to United's advantage

Angela Bezon was not actually born in a cabbage patch, but she laughingly describes herself as a "Cabbage Patch Kid."

Her mother, Sandy, was visiting her father, Joe, in the fields of the family onion and cabbage farm, Joseph Bezon & Sons in Elba, NY. "As my mom was leaving the cabbage field, she went into labor. People brought me 'Cabbage Patch' dolls in the hospital," Ms. Bezon, the 26-year-old policy and grassroots manager at the United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, DC, said in an interview with The Produce News.

Ms. Bezon graduated from the State University of New York at Geneseo in 2004 with a degree in political science. She has worked full time for United "four years come July," but is not surprised that people in the industry think it has been longer. "I've been around United on and off since 2001," when she attended the organization's annual public policy conference.

Ms. Bezon has the distinction of being United's first intern, reporting for duty when she was a college junior in 2003.

She began on her path to Washington four years earlier when neighbor and farmer Maureen Torrey Marshall offered the high school junior a summer job as a combination nanny and softball coach to her children. "Our muckland is next to the Torreys' muckland," Ms. Bezon said.

Ms. Torrey Marshall became a mentor, taking her to that first public policy conference. When Ms. Bezon was looking for an internship, Ms. Torrey Marshall called United and suggested that the organization establish a program.

"We've had four since me," Ms. Bezon said. "Now I am managing the internship program we have. I like giving back to that program." She wants the interns to see that "to be in DC, it's not just about stuffing envelopes." Washington is a very small city, she pointed out, facilitating her goal of helping interns and other United members learn about all the agriculture groups with which United works.

"The heart of it is really to get our members involved in a plethora of things," Ms. Bezon said of her role. "Providing a path for our members to communicate with members of Congress, submitting comments to [the U.S. Department of Agriculture], entering [data] on our web site that I manage." Among the many hats she wears is that of executive assistant to Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh.

"Angela has a special ability to relate not only to her peers but to leaders on our board and those who've been in the business for many, many years," Mr. Stenzel said. "We could see that as an intern in our office during her college years, and that's one of the reasons we were so happy for her to join our permanent staff several years later."

Ms. Bezon demonstrates the same enthusiasm for whatever aspects of United's programs she works on.

"In Las Vegas [at the United Fresh show May 4-7], we're having more of a fun event - a bowling tournament," she said. "The watermelon queens are coming out and playing as a team," as are representatives of other commodities and organizations, she said. "It's a highlight working on that event."

On the more serious side, the hot topic of immigration gets a lot of attention from United. "In 2008, we're working on the presidential election," Ms. Bezon said. "Normally we have part of our board or grassroots council attend the specialty crop sessions during both parties' conventions. And we always do something during the inauguration in DC -- if our members are in town and are attending events, we assist them."

Ms. Bezon, who lives in Fairfax, VA, is a self-avowed history buff and takes advantage of her location to visit such nearby sites as Williamsburg and Monticello, both in Virginia. She enjoys foreign travel as well and went this past January with a group of friends to Chile. Brazil might be next on her leisure-travel itinerary.

Meanwhile, her job has taken her all over the country, beginning during her years as an intern.

She recalled her first trip to California to attend a convention. A farm tour was on the agenda. "I have to say it was the first time I was awed by agriculture," she said. "We went out to Boskovich Farms to see the strawberries. It was the biggest field I had ever seen. Then at Sunkist, I saw the technology of sorting."

On a more recent trip to Costa Rica for a winter board meeting, she witnessed tropical fruit production first-hand. "Before that trip, I didn't know what it took to get a pineapple to market. It's a whole different type of production." It is a far cry from growing up on the jet-black soil of New York state, she said.

She can remember doing cabbage transplants at age 8 and celebrating her birthday with cupcakes that her grandmother brought to the field. "I never thought of it as work at the time," she said.

The family farm encompasses about 450 acres, and since "with cabbage, you don't really plant it on lots and lots of acres," the operation includes about 175 pigs and 200 beef cattle, Ms. Bezon said. "I did 4-H all through my school years, for 14 years at the [Orleans] County Fair," she said.

Ms. Bezon returns to New York for frequent visits to the farm that her great- grandparents, who emigrated from Poland in 1920, founded. In addition to her parents, her brother, Joe, 30, and sister, Jennifer, 21, still live in the area, as do many lifelong friends. In fact, she and some of her girlfriends compete annually in the Orleans County Fair greased pole contest -- "we're the only all-girl team," she said.

"The whole experience of [growing up] on the farm taught me respect for the industry - the people growing, packing and shipping," she said. Over time, that respect turned into a passion for the industry. "I want to help [people] tell their members of Congress how different policies and legislation [are] going to affect them. I can honestly say to them, 'I think I understand, and here is what I think we can do.' "

Ms. Bezon acknowledged that her youth contributes to the path that she is forging for herself at United. "There are so many people here on staff that are wonderful and have years of experience. I can really learn from so many people," she said. She described sitting in on weekly sales meetings and noted, "It's bringing that next generation into our trade association. Our members are using Facebook." People are warming up to the newer technology, debating the merits of YouTube video placements, for example, but "you have to keep in mind that you have to reach both generations," she said.

"Wearing all those hats can sometimes be a challenge, but that's what makes me thrive. I can honestly say I never get bored. I know I'm working for an industry I love. We're here to find that solution, even to the smallest thing."