He once had ambitions to teach college English, but academe's loss turned out to be the celery industry's gain.

By September of this year, Bob Gray was far from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where he earned, with honors, a master's degree in English and laid plans to pursue a doctorate.

Instead, the Yuma, Ariz., native was settling in as the new president and chief operating officer of A. Duda & Sons, Inc. A seasoned veteran with the company, he was named to head its newly integrated production and sales branches in California, Texas, and Florida.

Those components of the company, the largest family-owned and operated fresh vegetable and citrus grower in the United States, herald a new focus on food service, exports, and augmentation of electronic data technology throughout its operations.

Established in 1926, the Duda company with headquarters in Oviedo, a suburb of Orlando, Fla. The largest grower-shipper of celery in the U.S., it controls, through ownership, leasing, or joint venture, about 90,000 acres of productive farmland, about one-third of it in vegetables. It has operations in 11 states and Mexico to provide year-round supplies. The company also has citrus, sod, sugarcane, and real estate interests.

Although his new duties take him throughout the company's territory, Gray, 51, will maintain his base in Salinas, where he and his wife Pat, a production accounting manager for the company, reside. He has spent most of his career there since 1980, when he joined the company as a commodity salesman and administrative assistant.

Gray was already familiar with produce, having worked his way through the University of Arizona with jobs in the industry and scholarships starting in 1967. After completing studies in Scotland, he returned to the U.S. in 1973 and found an active job market in produce during the next several years.

Gray began his career with Duda under the tutelage of Gene Jackson, a longtime Duda executive in the Oxnard district and now retired in Florida. Gray advanced to division vice president in 1989, in 1995 he became president of Duda-California, and in 1998 he was named corporate vice president of A. Duda & Sons.

Gray has been chairman of the California Celery Research Advisory Board and a member of the California Lettuce Research Board. He recently resigned from those posts due to travel demands of his new position, but he plans to continue work with other industry associations.

Prosperous future He says he believes celery has a prosperous future, particularly considering its nutritional appeal and export potential, and his company will be capitalizing on the crop's strengths.

Duda joins Dole Foods and Tamamura & Antle as the three principal shippers of celery in the western U.S. Value of the California crop in 1998 was $207 million from 24,000 acres. The yield of 857,000 tons put the state in first place in the nation, accounting for 93 percent of the U.S. output.

The crop has two seasons. The summer season is June through November and December in Salinas and Santa Maria and the winter season is November-December to early July in Oxnard. Desert production fills in from January through March.

"In California," said Gray, "we are basically a partner with growers. We have some production of our own in the Oxnard district, but the majority of our business is in grower-shipper joint ventures with a shared ownership of the crop."

Growers provide the land base and production inputs, and the company contributes its proprietary celery varieties, some production expertise, and harvesting and marketing skills.

"In the combination of these resources, the two parties are stronger and more efficient, better equipped, and more competitive than a single party trying to do everything without the many local, intangible elements that make grower-shipper relationships truly successful."

Proprietary varieties, derivatives of the Tall Utah types, are part of Duda's defenses to ensure continued production of celery. Research and development of varieties are aimed not only at yield and resistance to pests and disease, but shape, color, and taste for consumer appeal. The research center is in Salinas and development is done in California, Texas, and Florida.

"All of the varieties we grow are Duda-developed, we have about 18 lines in our Gene's Gems series, and we are constantly developing our new internal lines."

Duda entered the food service arena in 1999 with a new direction for its sales activity. "We refocused on that category of the food business because more and more of the food dollar is being spent away from home in restaurants, while the percentage of retail dollars is slowly diminishing."

The emphasis has been on whole or sliced, diced, and sticks, according to customer demand. Duda also has the nation's largest celery canning facility, which also slices and dices celery for fresh and frozen use, in Florida.

Party-tray ingredient Gray noted that per capita consumption of celery has been on a decline in recent years, since Americans tend to consider it more a part of festive meals during the holidays rather than an every-day produce item.

"It doesn't have the popularity of potatoes, onions, bananas, or apples, but demand for it coincides with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Super Bowl, and Easter as a party-tray ingredient. It is more prominent at retail those times of year than any other."

Duda continues its long history of exporting celery. "As the economy gets more and more global and intertwined, we will find ourselves a provider to major customers around the world. It would not surprise me to see, in the next five years, retailing become more international, along with common standards of quality and procurement and provisions for currency fluctuation and exchange rates."

Duda's western operations ship mainly to markets in Canada, Mexico, and Asia, while other locations supply the rest of the world.

In Asia celery is said to have medicinal properties to combat hypertension and other ailments and has a strong, culturally entrenched following. Although celery is grown across Asia from Australia to the southern provinces of China, Gray said American celery shippers do a better job:

"Our techniques of production, postharvest handling, packing, and shipping allow us to provide a superior product in those markets."

Sagging demand for celery in domestic markets is a challenge, and Gray noted he expects to see the decline in per capita consumption of several vegetables, not only celery.

"The number of choices has doubled or tripled over the past few years. With so many choices, I expect a lot of the numbers on key items will be disappointing," he said, adding that celery, although not competing directly with a particular vegetable is nevertheless one of many alternatives available to consumers, including all sorts of snacks and confections.

Yet the U.S. produce industry might find some help in promoting the Canadian diet of seven or eight servings of fresh fruits or vegetables per day instead of the current five-a-day encouraged in the U.S.

"The Canadian diet has many more servings of fruit and vegetables, and their goal is to get the number of servings closer to 10 per day. If we increased ours to six or seven, not only would we all be healthier and happier and live longer, it would be good for business."

He said the company will continue its prominent use of electronic data interchange, examples being purchase orders and invoices on an item-specific basis and following a universal catalog of product-identifiers. It is part of their transition toward less paperwork, from present-day bar-coding to eventual electronic check-writing. It is also a basic element in management of the company's processing operations.

"We've used that format for many of our major customers, but there's also an emerging demand for transparency in transactions and third-party auditing. Where we don't already have these practices in place at our shipping locations, they're in the process of being adopted."

Customer consolidation Looking ahead to potential changes for the celery industry in the next 20 years, Gray said foremost among the more obvious will be dealing with consolidation of the customer base, both retail and food service, which has a head start on consolidation at the grower-shipper level.

"Retail consolidation is a threat and an opportunity. If we can provide a broad range of products and services and meet the standards of the trade across the nation, I think we have a very good chance to be a top supplier to the industry as all the changes work their way toward completion."

Important too will be the globalization of trade, typified by the anticipated role of China as both a customer and competitor. According to Gray, while there's no way to prevent China from becoming a competitor, the U.S. industry will need to be alert for markets for fresh produce as China makes a determined effort to move from the Third World to the First World via its modernizing, industrializing economy.

"Currently, we can still provide the Chinese better quality in citrus and some vegetables than they can provide for themselves. Over the long term, that is likely to change."

In the case of celery, even though it is a broadly consumed vegetable, the California product must be targeted toward more affluent Chinese consumers because it is imported.

Gray said he is optimistic Duda will continue to provide value and a breadth of services to growers as well as customers. "We are well positioned to serve the trade regionally as well as nationally. I believe those things are compelling and will make Duda a viable company in this environment of change.

"We are in a partnership with growers, one that will hopefully bring prosperity to all parties. If we can make money farming and get the right return to the ranch, that's what we are after. In our roots, we are farmers; that's where this company started."