November 22, 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

The right mix

In 1998, TKM made another strategic move, teaming up with Veg Pro International of Quebec. Employees and equipment from both companies shuttle back and forth between Quebec and south Florida following the growing seasons.

During the winter months when Florida fields are productive, Veg Pro employees come south to run a slick assembly line packaging operation in the Basores' Belle Glade plant. Inside the lettuce factory, chilled to 34 degrees, white-aproned workers put spinach and other greens through a triple-wash cycle. Depending on what the day's harvest has yielded, the Canadians devise a "recipe" for their packaged "spring mix," which every 20 minutes or so is tested by quality assurance workers. On a day in mid-January, the workers blend tatsoi, mizuna, romaine, tango, arugula and other types of lettuce until they've achieved just the right 60-40 mix of green and red leaves.


FIELDS OF GREEN: The Basores moved part of their factory to the filed. As the lettuce is harvested, Toby Basore says, "Nothing touches the ground anymore."

MIXING IT UP: The Basores' Canadian partners head to Belle Glade during the winter months to run a spring mix packaging operation out of the Basores' facility, where the temperature is kept just above freezing.
Come April, the assembly lines will be dismantled and transported on flatbed trucks to Canada along with the Basores' field equipment -- everything from the stainless steel harvester to the giant bug vacuum. Sharing employees and equipment keeps production costs down and ensures customers a steady, year-round supply, says Toby. "It's really innovative. It's a win-win for Veg Pro and TKM."

Each brother, meanwhile, specializes in a different aspect of the business. Toby manages production, Kevin concentrates on planting, and Michael specializes in harvesting and technology. Brothers Brian and Stephen, who jumped onboard later, handle sales and food safety, respectively.

Today, TKM-Bengard Farms -- the name stems from a recent partnership with Tom Bengard Ranch of Salinas, Calif. -- bills itself as the largest lettuce grower east of the Mississippi River, working approximately 2,200 acres of iceberg, 1,800 acres of spring mix and baby spinach, and 600 acres of romaine, escarole, endive and other varieties of lettuce. Some will end up on grocery store shelves under the Ready Pac label. The bulk of it will be sold to fast-food restaurants.

The company, with roughly $20 million in sales last year, also is making another attempt to grow organic lettuce -- increasingly in demand at both traditional and upscale grocers. The Basores tried it three years ago without much luck, Toby says, but new blends of organic fertilizer hold promise.

Ironically, the next round of change may take the business full circle. With gasoline prices near an all-time high, freight rates for California-shipped lettuce are tipping the scales in favor of regional growers. "Eventually, we'll get back into the commodity end, where we'll be able to market different varieties. That's the next move I see coming here," says Tom. "We'll go back into wrapped lettuce."

TKM-Bengard Farms
Location: Belle Glade
Cultivated area: 5,500 acres
Principals: Tom Basore and sons Brian, Toby, Kevin, Michael and Stephen
Annual sales: $20 million

Lettuce Facts

  • Lettuce has been grown in the U.S. since Colonial times.
  • It's the nation's leading vegetable crop, valued at $2 billion.
  • Americans consume 34.5 pounds per capita.
  • Lettuce acreage, up 20% in past five years, exceeds 325,000.
  • California (73%) and Arizona (26%) grow the most.

Source: Agricultural Marketing Research Center, University of California

Tags: Southeast, Agriculture

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