Interview with Superfresh Growers' Kristin Kershaw

Kristin Kershaw of Superfresh Growers has orchard work in her blood. She was just eleven years old when her dad told her to drive his truck....without any instructions other than to keep it out of the Roza Canal. At the age of twelve her first job was pruning fireblight out of a block of baby pear trees. The trees are no longer alive, but Kristin went on to have a big impact on the apple industry in eastern Washington, including serving as the Chair of the Government Affairs Committee of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

Kristin’s favorite boss was Vern Haysom, who retired this past summer. He led by example and brought humor and leadership to his job every day for forty-four years.

Kristin has led all corporate and family charitable giving since 2004. As the company has grown and the industry has gotten more complex, her responsibilities have increased. Currently, her role is primarily community and government relations but it also encompasses engagement with all stakeholder groups--their growers and shippers, employees, community members, government, and industry.

Kristin took some time to share her experience and aspirations with Ganaz.

What are you most proud of as an Ag employer?

I’m proud that we have employees at the highest levels of the company who are the children of farmworkers. Their parents and grandparents picked apples for us in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. We are committed to improving upward social mobility in the agriculture industry. To be a sustainable industry, it has to offer opportunities for personal growth and professional advancement for all. To that end, we have a program that I am especially proud of.

What’s been one of the most positive employee programs you’ve implemented?

We felt that we could do more than just provide advancement opportunities for our own employees. We believe everyone benefits when an entire community has better opportunities for advancement. We see education as the key to those opportunities.

We wanted to be able to remove the barriers to accessing education, particularly cost and location. We found a willing and wonderful partner at the U of W Foster School of Business. Their Consulting and Business Development Center has a mission to provide business education across the state. We agreed to provide the operating funds to implement their Business Certificate Program in Yakima. They bring their best professors to teach students the basics of business once a week for six weeks. The classes are held at night so you can come after work. It’s offered three times per year at no cost to the student. We’ve had students who have already earned an MBA and some who were simultaneously working on their GED all graduate from the program. It gives anyone the tools to be more successful in the workplace, whether you are working in agriculture, the public sector or a non-profit. The program teaches the skills that take someone from an entry-level job to a solid middle class wage and career. The program has been such a success that we’ve been able to offer an additional morning class and other local business have stepped up to cover the additional costs.

What inspired you to start that program?

Well, we didn’t start it. The U of W has had a successful Business Certificate Program in Seattle for many years. What we did was work with them to tweak an existing program to fit the needs of our valley. It was our own workforce that inspired us. We have so many talented employees, but many of them did not have the opportunity to pursue higher education. We wanted them to have that chance.  

Community involvement seems to be really important to Superfresh Growers. Where does this motivation come from? What’s one of your favorite community organizations and why?

Community involvement isn’t something we do to tick a box on a social responsibility audit; we do it because we see the community as a partner and an investor in our success. Their success is our success.  

One of my favorite organizations in Yakima is called La Casa Hogar. They are a small non-profit making a big impact. As one of the largest and most successful providers of citizenship education in the valley, they help many people get citizenship and start new lives in this country every year.

What keeps you up at night as an Ag employer?

Immigration reform. We need a legal and stable workforce. Our communities need people who can work and live in this country without fear.

What is something you’d like to understand better about your employees?

I want to know what we can do better as employers. As an owner it is hard to get honest feedback and information. We have lots of systems in place like a hotline, surveys and suggestions boxes but I always worry that we are missing something obvious.

What’s an opportunity for improving employee retention and satisfaction that you’re most excited about?

We just added an onsite gym. Our main office is in a rural area without many services.  We wanted to be able to offer our employees the opportunity to get exercise even if the weather is bad. During good weather we offer fitness classes outside along with a soccer field and walking along the Greenway Trail.

As Chair of the Government Affairs Committee of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, what are some of your key legislative priorities for 2018?

Our industry is working with the relevant state agencies and the Governor’s office to ensure that adequate resources are in place to monitor and administer the H-2A program as it grows to fill the unmet need for agricultural labor in Washington State.

If you had a magic wand to address one specific public policy issue nationally that affects you as an Ag employer, what would it be and what would your solution be?

I’ve always wanted a magic wand. I would use it find a way for the millions of improperly documented immigrants to legally work in this country. They want to work and we need employees. They are needed in agriculture, in healthcare, construction, travel; all sectors of the economy.

What do you wish prospective candidates knew about your company?

I wish applicants knew that their career trajectory is only limited by their own desire and imagination. We offer many opportunities for additional education and training for anyone who is interested.

What do you wish customers knew about you as an Ag employer?

I wish customers knew that when they buy a Washington State tree fruit product, it comes from companies that adhere to the most stringent food safety and workplace standards. The product is picked and packed by highly skilled workers who are paid some of the highest agriculture wages in the world.