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Salad Days

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.

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