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A&W expects 30 percent increase in Nogales program

by Rand Green | January 13, 2009

Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce in San Diego, which grows tomatoes and other products in Baja California, Mexico, during spring, summer and fall and in the Culiacan area of the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, from December through April, will have an overall growth in volume of around 30 percent from Culiacan this year.

The Culiacan product is shipped through an Andrew & Williamson distribution warehouse in Nogales, AZ.

"We are expanding the program fairly significantly," Mark Munger, vice president of marketing, told The Produce News Dec. 22. "Last year, we had actually slowed things down a little bit and focused mainly on Roma tomatoes and cucumbers."

In Baja, round vine-ripes, grape tomatoes and cherry tomatoes are also part of A&W's tomato program, and the company has grown some of those products in Culiacan previously as well. "But we had some quality issues the year previous ... associated with weather and some other factors" and felt that "the best thing to do" for the 2007-08 Nogales season "was focus on those two key items," Romas and cucumbers, he said.

"We had a very successful year last year," Mr. Munger continued. "This year, we have increased our Roma and cucumber acreage by about 15 percent, and we have also now added" to the Culiacan program "the full line" of tomato products A&W grows in Baja.

"We will have, in addition to the cukes and Romas, the vine-ripe rounds, cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes." Also part of the program are organic Romas and cucumbers. "So we've got the full complement going again, which is going to really increase our volume ... about 30 percent overall," he said.

In previous years, A&W has been using a leased distribution facility in Nogales and has been "relying on [the facility's] staff and maybe one or two of our people." This year, the company is operating its own distribution center "fully staffed with our own employees," Mr. Munger said. "We think that is really going to help with quality, consistency and the ease of getting our customers' product on trucks and into the marketplace."

In Culiacan, all of A&W's products are being grown in protected structures. "One hundred percent of our own acreage is in protected shadehouses," Mr. Munger said. In addition, the company is growing some product in leased glass greenhouse facilities. "We've got some long-term leases that we have picked up," he said.

A mixture of technologies is being used in both the greenhouses and shadehouses, Mr. Munger said. A&W is beginning to employ hydroponic production in some of its facilities in all growing areas. In Culiacan, that will amount to 5-10 percent of total shadehouse acreage this year. It is "a much higher percentage over in Baja," he said, but it is "starting to increase" in both areas. The advantage is not having the concern with the development of soilborne pests that can develop in shadehouses when crops are grown "continuously in the same locations" year after year.

A&W has made some modifications to its packing facility in Culiacan that will improve efficiencies and enable the packingline to accommodate the increased volume, Mr. Munger said. Front-end improvements have increased the amount of product that can be put onto the line, and back-end improvements have eliminated some bottlenecks that previously existed, improving both "the speed and accuracy" of the packing process. "Any time you can improve your efficiency and not add any more square footage, it is a good thing," he said.

"Our focus is quality assurance right now," Mr. Munger emphasized. Last year's Nogales deal was "the most successful" yet for A&W, partly because of good weather but also because "we continue to develop a customer-direct base. It is really helping us to move product more efficiently. We go into every day having the majority of our crop already committed to retailers and foodservice operators, so it gives us a tremendously stable business."

He continued, "And because we are working with the end user primarily with the majority of our product, the pressure on us to deliver a very consistent, high-quality pack is very high, so for us it is all about ensuring consistent quality."