July 28, 2014

Agriculture

Salad Days

New technology and creative partnerships are keeping a family of third-generation lettuce farmers in business in south Florida.

Amy Keller | 3/1/2006
Toby Basore steers his truck into Belle Glade's rich, black muck, hops out and plucks a head of iceberg lettuce from the field, slicing it open with his pocketknife. This one's not ready yet, he says -- the leaves aren't densely packed enough in the center.

COMING UP ROSES: The Basores - from left, Brian, Kevin, Toby and Michael - struggled to stay in business after losing their biggest customer in 1994.

After a few more days under south Florida's winter sun, the heads will firm up. Then, within 24 hours, the crisp leafy vegetables will be picked, washed, cooled, heat-sealed in a bag injected with nitrogen and loaded onto a truck bound for New Jersey. There the lettuce will be repacked, processed and shipped to a fast-food restaurant like Burger King to garnish Whoppers.

A decade ago it seemed unlikely that the lettuce industry would survive here in the nutrient-rich soil that Palm Beach County farmers have long called "black gold." Retailers wanted pretty produce, but Florida lettuce had a shorter shelf life and lacked the eye appeal of the California variety that dominated the market. In addition, Western growers, with a year-round growing season, simply outproduced their Florida competitors.

Florida growers also were slow to react when bagged salads took off in the early 1990s and sliced into sales. "We used to do 13,000 to 14,000 cases of naked lettuce a day. All of a sudden that disappeared," recalls Michael Basore, one of Toby's younger brothers and the harvesting expert in the operation that their father, Tom, founded in 1969.

In 1994, the Basore family hit a low point when its biggest customer, a produce processing company called South Bay Growers, pulled the plug on its lettuce operation. The company, a subsidiary of U.S. Sugar and a big land owner, was one of the nation's largest suppliers of winter vegetables. But South Bay, which bought from the Basores and other growers, decided to switch to sugar cane. The move devastated the nearby town of South Bay, which lost 1,300 jobs, and left local growers like the Basores in the lurch. Without South Bay's lucrative contracts with chain stores, the Basores had virtually no buyers. "Marketing got real tough," says Tom.

In 1996, Toby, Kevin and Michael Basore launched a lettuce-growing operation called TKM Farms. The new company's business plan aimed at tapping into the lucrative processed-lettuce market -- cleaning and mixing lettuce into 1-pound bags for sale in grocery stores or 4-pound bags for restaurants. In addition to the iceberg the family had grown for nearly three decades, the Basores began planting varieties ranging from endive to escarole, radicchio, frisee and baby spinach. Today, Tom jokes that his sons are growing crops of lettuce that he didn't know existed 25 years ago.

The Basores also realized that they needed to update their processing operations -- marketing field-soiled lettuce heads in battered boxes wouldn't do any more. And so they've moved part of the factory to the field. Under a warm midday sun in January, 16 laborers move through a sea of lettuce in graceful unison with a giant harvesting machine that Kevin designed. The workers bend, hand-cut and pack thousands of heads of green leaf lettuce that are immediately tucked into crates and bound with shrink-wrap before being shuttled to the Basores' 70,000-sq.-ft. cooling house. "Nothing touches the ground any more," says Toby.

Tags: Southeast, Agriculture

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