When you take your next bite of banana, celery or fresh produce, you’re benefiting from experts who troubleshoot the perilous path from harvest to your mouth.
Experts like Yvonne Rentmeester (’95, agricultural business management), who for 23 years with Dole Fresh Fruit Co., North America Division, and now with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, has poured herself into making sure fruits and vegetables are handled and delivered in a safe, timely manner despite weather, transportation, supplier and the occasional pest issues.
She attributes her work in an industry she loves, in part, to the network she has built at Cal Poly Pomona. As a veteran in her industry and secretary of the Cal Poly Pomona Alumni Association’s Board of Directors, the importance of making those connections and tapping into them to find opportunities in a chosen field is a message she wants to share with current students and graduates alike.
“Networking is how you get these positions,” she says.
Take advantage of what the campus is offering you. You’ve got to seek mentors and opportunities out.
The Professor’s Daughter
Rentmeester got an early glimpse of what the university had to offer as a young girl hanging out on campus with her father, Professor Emeritus Gregory J. Partida (’65, agriculture biology). Partida, who has a doctorate in entomology, spent 40 years preparing Cal Poly Pomona students to contribute immediately to critical agricultural jobs. He coordinated the agricultural biology and fruit industries programs. He also was farm manager of the university orchards on campus and at Pine Tree Ranch in Santa Paula for 23 years. He and many of his undergraduate and Master of Science students conducted research on different cultural practices to increase fruit production in avocado orchards.
Growing up, Rentmeester often roller skated near Building 2 and loved hanging out in the back of her dad’s classroom. She felt at home at the university.
“Even today, the campus atmosphere is just grounding,” she says. As soon as she arrives on the campus, “there’s a click, and I’m so comfortable.”
The graduate of St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora was “extremely bright,” according to her dad, and curious, traits she says she inherited from her father.
“My dad was always reading and always studying, and that’s my nature as well,” she says. “I’m always looking forward, and that’s from growing up with him.”
After taking classes at UCLA and figuring out what she wanted to do, Rentmeester enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona. While exploring programs, she landed on agribusiness. She recalled standing in her father’s office discussing her love of fruit production and her father encouraging her to also look into the agribusiness industry.
The CSI of Bananas
A few years after graduating from college, Rentmeester had just returned home to California after living at Fort Bragg, North Carolina for three years, as her husband was serving in the Army. She was looking at job listings in the LA Times when she spotted a posting for a technical services representative position at Dole Fresh Fruit Co., assisting customers with all aspects of their fresh banana program.
At the same time, Terry Kuhel (’92, animal science), a former student of her father’s had reached out to Partida, asking if he knew any graduates looking for a job.
“Dad said, ‘Yeah, she just moved back to California,’” Rentmeester says.
Kuhel went to the human resources director about Rentmeester’s application, recommending her for the position. He also was one of her trainers on the job. She soon found her niche working to ensure that the common yellow fruit made it from the terminal port to the distribution center to the grocery store in the best condition possible.
“Bananas are a challenging fruit due to their postharvest characteristics,” she says of one of the United States’ most popular grocery items. “And it’s the last 50 feet that you see the greatest challenge.”
During her more than two decades at Dole, Rentmeester rose to become the technical services manager in 2000 and added on the duties of the quality assurance manager in 2014.
Her Cal Poly Pomona education in the classrooms and working hands on with produce and conducting research in the orchards and greenhouses helped prepare her for her role at Dole.
“In the Technical Service Department, we were like the CSI of bananas when there was an issue occurring with a customer’s banana program,” she says. “You’ve got to investigate the supply chain to try and figure out why this is going on, and that’s where I think Cal Poly Pomona really helps you through the learn by doing philosophy.
At one point, Dole had a training program tied to Cal Poly Pomona, which involved Partida talking to employees about the fruit growing process. The company also once had a scholarship in her father’s name, Dole Partida Scholarship, providing three $1,000 scholarships to students. For a number of years, the professor would bring the students to the Los Angeles Wholesale Market, where technical service representatives would review the postharvest handling of the bananas, pineapples and other fruits and vegetables, according to Rentmeester.
Dole also conducted research on the campus at the packing house on Citrus Lane. A small test ripening room was donated, and it was placed at the packing house, where research and development projects were conducted, such as varietal trials, box trials, and more, she adds.
Paying it Forward
Throughout her career, Rentmeester has helped guide and support fellow agriculture alumni.
She hired Carlos Holguin (’99, agriculture biology and plant science), one of her father’s students, at Dole and managed him for a short time. Holguin, who is a vendor development manager for Canada’s largest grocery chain, Loblaws, works to make sure quality vegetables are available for all Canadians. Holguin credits her with teaching, guiding and mentoring him to develop the skillset for effective communication and making connections with suppliers around the world.
“Networking’s important because this is such a specialized industry, and Cal Poly Pomona provides a great education in it,” Holguin says.
Angelic Rael (’06, horticulture), Dole’s food safety and quality assurance manager for terminal operations in North America and Hawaii, worked with Rentmeester when Rael worked in the technical services department as assistant manager.
To create openness and trust throughout the supply chain, Rentmeester instills the importance of encouragement and education among her colleagues and mentees.
“She is definitely a person that helps empower people,” Rael says. “She made sure you had the skill set and then she’s like, ‘You’ve got the wings, so now go fly.’”
Rentmeester also has an encyclopedic memory of the technical aspects of her field, as well as her networks, a trait that probably runs in the family.
“Like an elephant,” Rael adds. “Her dad is exactly the same.”
Those Rentmeester has mentored and trained also say they have learned so much from her about the business and bananas in particular — mainly about how crucial the handling of the fruit is and how fickle it can be.
“You’ve got to be flexible and definitely you can’t take it personal because of the dynamics of a piece of fruit,” says assistant operations manager Christopher Avila (’01, food marketing and agricultural management), who was hired by Rentmeester at Dole and now oversees fresh fruits and vegetables as the assistant quality control manager for the Walmart Distribution Center’s Western Region. “If you look at a strawberry wrong, they will start to breakdown on you.”
A Season for Change
Rentmeester made the big switch from the corporate world to a nonprofit in August 2021. After a corporate restructure at Dole in 2020, the Rancho Cucamonga resident and married mom to two teenaged daughters transferred her skills to Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, located in Irvine.
The mission of Second Harvest Food Bank is to provide dignified, equitable and consistent access to nutritious food, creating a foundation for community health. One in six children in Orange County — one of the most affluent areas of the country — is food insecure.
“It’s been an eye opener, and the same thing is going on across the country,” she says.
In 2021, Second Harvest distributed nearly 60 million pounds of food each month to feed an average of 490,000 people per month, an increase of more than 40 percent over 2020. Produce makes up more than 38 percent of the food distributed to those in need, and Rentmeester analyzes and ranks the donated food. Each morning it is loaded into Food Bank trucks and dispatched across the county to more than 300 partner sites, which include senior centers, schools and food pantries at all county community colleges and universities.
Her vast knowledge and that of her ag network helps her determine which donated produce gets delivered when and where. On a recent day, pears were looking great, but the spinach? Not so much.
“You’ve got to try to figure out the challenge by the way the product is talking to you,” she says. “You’ve got to open up the box and try to figure out what happened to these cucumbers.”
Rentmeester’s can-do attitude helped her make the transition to a nonprofit, an adjustment that impressed Dan Hostetler, retired chair of the plant science department.
“Coming out of a true agricultural scenario, not many of our plant science alumni see their careers transition into service industries like the Second Harvest Food Bank, which I commend her for,” Hostetler says. “She gets to use all of her knowledge obtained from Dole and put it to use in community issues that are truly important to our local cities, state and nation.”
Mentee Holguin says Rentmeester’s skill set makes her perfect for her new post.
“Donated produce is a lot more work and having someone like her is immeasurable so that people who need food get the best food available,” he says. “She is ideal for that position.”
Rentmeester feels fortunate that she has been able to stay in the agricultural industry and particularly enjoys encouraging the Huntley College of Agriculture’s 13,000 alumni to build their network.
“I feel blessed to be able to work with all age groups,” she says. “The hands-on, learn-by-doing experience at CPP really was integral to me. I took advantage of what the campus had to offer.”
Melanie Johnson contributed to this article.