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Managing the produce for 44 years

George Nagel at work in the produce section at
Wold's Valley Market. G. Noland photo

by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
December 24, 1998

Seeley Lake shoppers may take for granted the wide variety of fruits and vegetables available at the local grocery store. But one thing's for sure: the produce manager doesn't take his customers for granted.

After 44 years of working in grocery stores, Valley Market's produce manager, George Nagel, still says the best part of the job is people.

"I love people. It's one of the reasons that I've stayed in the grocery business so long," he said. "You are right out there where you meet everybody. It is always interesting, and always changing." Nagel is sure he knows everybody in Seeley Lake, but jokes, "I couldn't tell you their names!"

The kinds of fruits and vegetables that shoppers find in Seeley Lake today would surprise people who lived here in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Twenty years ago, shoppers were lucky to find apples, bananas, potatoes and lettuce. Today, they can find everything from hot peppers to bean sprouts at Valley Market, thanks to Nagel, who responds quickly to customer requests.

When Valley Market first opened in Seeley Lake in 1985, "things were pretty basic," Nagel explained. However, shoppers soon began asking for different varieties of fruits and vegetableskiwi fruit, tofu, jalapeno peppers, ginger root and Chinese cabbage.

"This store went gung-ho right from the start," he said.

People in the Seeley Lake area benefit from the biggest change in the produce business in recent decades. Thanks to technology and transportation improvements, a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables are now available weekly from all over the world.

For example, Nagel explained that a crop like fresh sweet corn that was once available for only a short time seasonally, is now available in late winter (from Mexico), during the summer (from Florida and California), and from mid-summer to early fall (from Wa;shington and Oregon and local areas).

Early soft fruits, (grapes, peaches, nectarines and plums), which were once only available in the summer, now begin arriving in Montana from South America in January and February.

California crops such as cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, are ending right now, but Seeley Lake residents will still see these vegetables in the store this winter thanks to Mexican crops. "The biggest thing from Mexico in the winter is tomatoes," he explained, adding that peppers, eggplant and zuchini also come from Mexico during the winter.

Some vegetables are available all year 'round from California, such as lettuce, carrots and cabbage. "It's rare that we ever get these from Mexico," he explained. But weather also affects crops such as lettuce.

"When the rains start in California, suppliers switch to desert lettuce (from Arizona)," he said.

In fact, weather has the biggest effect on produce and prices. "When you see all the ups and downs in produce prices, it usually has something to do with weather," he said.

However, Nagel is seeing a new influence on produce prices in recent years: global economic conditions.

"Right now, bananas are cheap. That's because Eastern Europe quit buying bananas. They don't have the money. So, there's a glut of bananas," he said. But, the market will probably go the other way soon, he said, due to hurricanes in banana producing regions like Puerto Rico, Honduras and Costa Rica.

Understanding the fruit and vegetable markets is complicated. "There's a lot to know," he said. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."

Things may have been a little simpler twenty years ago, he said. Of course, back then, Seeley Lake residents who wanted to "stock up" either tended their own gardens or traveled to the Bitterroot or Mission valleys to buy produce.

In Missoula, twenty and thirty years ago, most of the produce in local stores came from California, Florida, Texas and Arizona. Missoula stores also purchased a lot of local vegetables seasonally from truck gardeners, like Stranger Tabish Garden, Hughs Gardens and other smaller growers.

"There used to be a lot of truck gardens in Missoula. Nowadays there really aren't any. The smaller growers all sell their produce through the Farmer's Market," he said.

Nagel still makes a point to buy local pumpkins, apples and potatoes in the fall from Bitterroot growers who he has worked with for over 30 years. A new crop of Bitterroot potatoes will soon arrive at the store, signaling the end of autumn, and the fast approach of winter.

Nagel, the son of a German baker, was born and raised in Butte, Montana, and started working at the Orange Street Super Save store in Missoula in 1954, after being discharged from the Navy.

Eighteen years later he transferred to the "new" Missoula Super Save (at the Tidyman's location) where he stayed for 13 more years. In 1985, when Super Save owner Dick Duncan built and opened Valley Market in Seeley Lake, Nagel came here "just to help him (Duncan) get started."

Somehow the arrangement became permanent, and thirteen years later, Nagel is still driving from Missoula to Seeley Lake two days a week.

"I'm winding down, slowly," he said during a recent interview. Nagel celebrated his 67th birthday in November, and admits he isn't quite ready to let go of the career that started shortly after the Korean War.

"Money isn't always the answer. It's doing what you like to do," he said.

And it is clear that Nagel enjoys his work.

"I don't ever regret doing what I did, simply because the produce department is the most fun department in the store," he said.

With all of his experience in Montana's produce business during the past four decades, you'd think Nagel would be happy that two of his four sons decided on careers in grocery stores. Not so, he grinned.

"It's ironic. I have four boys, and the last thing in the world I ever wanted was to see them work in the produce department," he said, adding that today, his oldest son is the produce manager at Albertson's in Hamilton, and his youngest son is the Albertson's produce manager in Seattle. Another son, Richard, manages an All-A-Dollar store in Orem, Utah, while a third son, Stephen, works in the construction business in California.

"I always wanted everybody to go to college, and learn something else," he laughed.

Nagel, who calls himself "semi-retired" admits that the pressure is mounting to retire completely. His wife of 46 years, Beverly, recently retired from her home day care business, and the two of them would like to spend more time enjoying their many hobbies. George has for many years enjoyed outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, and softball. He has been a pitcher in the Men's-Over-45 League in Missoula for many years, and is also an avid pheasant hunter.

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