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Kelly O'Grady of Earthbound Farm trips the life organic

Kelly O'Grady has a sales pitch for Earthbound Farm that is simple and sincere: Organic produce is good for consumers and good for the environment.

It's really more of a philosophy for the 25-year-old sales associate, who has worked for the organic grower-shipper in San Juan Bautista, CA, for the past two years.

"I'm helping bring the benefits of organic foods to consumers. I guess overall that's the most rewarding aspect of my job," she said. "Working in the organic industry is being socially and environmentally responsible."

Ms. O'Grady has been a member of the produce trade since she was about 15, when she performed accounting and secretarial duties for Quality Fresh Services, an independent inspection company owned by her father, Tim O'Grady. Now operating as cProduce.com, the company is entirely Internet-based, she said. "You get a report rating the quality of [a grower's] broccoli, for example, to help decide if you're going to buy it and how far you can ship it," she explained. "Basically he's rating product on a scale of one to 10."

Ms. O'Grady described herself as "third-generation produce" on both sides of her family, with both parents still working in the industry. Her mother, Vicki McKinsey, is a sales manager at Pacific International Marketing in Salinas, CA.

Ms. O'Grady grew up in Salinas with a strong agricultural background. "My mom's side are all farmers; my grandfather [Lyle McKinsey] on my mother's side has been in farming for 61 years," she said. Mr. McKinsey, who quit high school to begin farming, works with Ms. O'Grady's uncles at Growers Express as the Imperial Valley operations manager. "He's a farming consultant," she said.

The produce gene is dominant in other family members as well, as Ms. O'Grady has a sister who works with their dad. Two younger brothers are still in school.

At Earthbound Farm, Ms. O'Grady handles retail, foodservice and wholesale accounts. "A lot of it is customer-service- based," she said of her daily routine.

She specializes in manufactured salads. "We pioneered the packaged salad. A lot of our stuff is specialty, like baby greens, and it's all organic. We do commodities as well," she said.

The organic factor can result in a lot of variability in Earthbound's market, she said.

"Both yield and demand fluctuate; it's a rare day here that my job and demand are in perfect harmony," she said.

Organics are also more at the mercy of Mother Nature than conventional produce, she noted. "This has been a big mildew year, so we are adapting to dealing with a shortage of product," she said.

Sometimes in organic production, you just have to let nature take its course, she indicated. "There's not really anything we can do [Since] we can't spray fungicide. There are things you can use, they're just not as readily available as in the conventional market."

Ms. O'Grady draws on the qualities of her youth on the job. "I think it works to my advantage," she said. "I'm tenacious and innovative and relentless."

A positive outlook doesn't hurt either. She declined to find a down side to being the new kid on the block. "I think you can overcome that with humility and by being honest -- poking fun at your inexperience -- and by having an outgoing personality," she said.

Ms. O'Grady gets to hone her networking skills with business travel for work. She counts attending last year's PMA convention in Anaheim, CA, as one of her more memorable trips, in part because of her unique perspective on the annual event.

"I'd been to one in Anaheim before; when I was little I went with my parents all the time," she said. "It was fun, I always had a good time. I just remember meeting nice people and going out to dinner."

So when she walked onto last year's show floor, she wasn't shocked by the sheer scale of the PMA convention. "I was familiar with the extent of it," Ms. O'Grady said. "Other first-timers are amazed by the size of it, of how far it stretches into other countries."

At about the time she was attending her first PMA show, Ms. O'Grady began babysitting, as well as becoming heavily involved in softball. Both girlhood activities left their mark.

"I liked earning my own money," Ms. O'Grady said, noting that working contributed to her sense of responsibility and encouraged her to budget her spending and set goals, traits that continue to shape her personality.

Likewise, her softball experience continues its influence. A pitcher and second baseman as a player, Ms. O'Grady today teaches pitching to girls as young as eight years old. "I think it helped shape my future and made me who I am today," she said of the sport. "It helped me face rejection and meet success ... and become a graceful winner and an unsore loser."

Travel was another broadening experience. While pursuing a degree in international studies with a focus in business at the University of California-Irvine (she graduated in 2003), Ms. O'Grady spent a semester studying language and culture in Sienna in Tuscany, Italy.

"It was challenging and yet rewarding," she said. "It teaches you definitely to become your own person and figure out who you are living abroad away from family and friends."

From her base in Italy, Ms. O'Grady traveled to the Czech Republic, Greece, Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Monaco and England.

In her spare time at home in California, she keeps fit with a variety of sporting activities. "I snow ski and I ran in the Big Sur International Marathon" [as a member of an Earthbound Farm-sponsored relay team, completing 6.8 miles], she said.

Ms. O'Grady also plays golf, a pursuit that dovetails nicely with her volunteer work for Multiple Sclerosis Community Services, a charitable organization founder by her grandmother Adele O'Grady in the 1960s. Golf outings and other fundraisers help to serve residents of Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Bonito counties affected by the disorder.

She is also a member of the California Women for Agriculture's Monterey County chapter. "In 2000 I was their scholarship chair; they give scholarships to the daughters of farm workers," Ms. O'Grady said.

Whether it's organics or giving back to the community, it looks like Kelly O'Grady is into something good.
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