(Photo by Glynns Thomas)

Women in Leadership: Rayne Thompson

Our annual salute to women at the top of their field

Back Article Mar 12, 2024 By Dakota Morlan

This story is part of our March 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Rayne Thompson

Vice President of Government Relations and Sustainability, Sunkist Growers and Fruit Growers Supply Company

Growing up, Rayne Thompson was influenced by several different locales (California, the East Coast and England), as well as a politically active family. When her aunt, Ann Evans, successfully ran for mayor of Davis, she joined the campaign and went door to door meeting constituents. When Thompson attended college at Notre Dame of Maryland University, she chose to pursue her interest in psychology, hoping to “help people with their problems.” But, as fate would have it, she ended up doing that through policy rather than therapy. “I think your career evolves through time, and you learn what you’re good at, and that’s kind of where you end up,” Thompson says. 

As vice president of government relations and sustainability for Sunkist, Thompson lobbies for the livelihoods of 1,000 citrus growers in California and Arizona, as well as the workers, supporting entities and communities that orbit around them. It’s a job that has grown increasingly difficult in a globalized U.S. economy, and Thompson is often required to address industry crises such as shipping slowdowns and retaliative foreign tariffs, “working with the federal and state government to remove those bottlenecks that are causing significant delays.” Recently, she co-led a coalition for the bipartisan passage of federal legislation to combat supply chain congestion, and she also works on sustainability initiatives involving soil and pollinator health. But the hardest part of her job is influencing trade policies that will determine growers’ competitiveness well into the future. 

“I think your career evolves through time, and you learn what you’re good at, and that’s kind of where you end up.”

California is the top lemon producer in the U.S. and has recently taken the lead over Florida in orange production, too. Yet the domestic citrus industry, which averages around $3 billion each year, faces major threats from abroad. “Imports can ship here and sell for cheaper than California can sell on the East Coast, so what are the policies that are going to make them competitive 10 and 20 years from now?” Thompson asks herself, often. “It’s definitely the biggest challenge, and I haven’t yet figured out the answer.”

Thompson is no stranger to these “big picture” problems. As the administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service under the Obama administration, she spent two years in Washington, D.C., overseeing food purchases for federal nutrition programs, enforcing organic standards and working with the FDA and other agencies on food safety. 

“They’re in the field, they’re grading eggs, they’re grading meat. … They’re making large purchases and organizing the distribution of food throughout the nation,” Thompson says of her 4,500 former employees. Prior to her USDA position, she was deputy secretary at the California Department of Food and Agriculture under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Food safety is of interest to everyone, but being a single “hockey mom” of two boys (Finn, 13, and Reed, 10, her “proudest achievements”), as well as a food bank volunteer, makes it even more personal for Thompson. “I tend to be more trustworthy of food grown in the United States because I do think we have one of the most rigorous regulatory systems,” she says. 

She also sits on the board of the Family Justice Center in Sacramento, which provides a one-stop place for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking to get help. 

For Thompson, work-life balance is more an idea than a reality, but, she says, she never takes her life for granted. “I think you try and laugh as much as possible and really make sure the time when you’re home in off work hours, you’re mentally home, which can be a little difficult.”

As a leader, Thompson values open dialogue and having a spectrum of personalities at the decision-making table. “Tell me what I don’t want to hear,” she says. “You may know something, a blind side, that I don’t know, and I would prefer going into something where I was told and didn’t want to listen than not told.” In formulating a plan, she will dissect and change her approach when it’s not working. She often looks to history “to understand what went wrong, what went right, how do we do it differently? Because no problem is new.” 

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