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Craig Wheeling assumes title of president at Brooks Tropicals

by Christina DiMartino | July 30, 2009
Brooks Tropicals has added the title of president to its chief executive officer, Craig Wheeling, who has served in that role for the past 15 years.

Mr. Wheeling takes over the position previously held by Pal Brooks, who is also the owner of Brooks Tropicals. Mr. Brooks is now chairman of the board. Mr. Wheeling's family has been farming in Miami-Dade County for 100 years, when the city of Miami was only 13 years old.

"My grandparents would have never predicted how farming looks today," said Mr. Wheeling. "And I doubt my grandchildren will be getting any practical insight from me either."

Brooks Tropicals, a leading supplier of tropical fruits and vegetables based in Homestead, FL, was founded in 1928. Over the years, it has gained a reputation across North America as a premier supplier of tropical fruits and vegetables. The firm specializes in Caribbean Red and Caribbean Sunrise papayas, "SlimCado" avocados, starfruit, Persian limes and Uniq Fruit.

Mr. Wheeling joined Brooks Tropicals in 1988 as Mr. Brooks' assistant. He was named CEO in 1994. His promotion to president was made official in late 2008, but the company announced the appointment July 28 to The Produce News.

Mr. Wheeling's family history spans widely across the agriculture industry. His forefathers were involved in citrus and dairy production, including producing feed for their cows. Following World War II, his father bought his first avocado grove in southern Dade County in an area called the Redlands. Soon after, the family started a packinghouse.

Mr. Wheeling worked the family farms and packinghouse as he grew up. After a successful career in finance, he returned to Miami after his father's death to help with the family business. After helping Mr. Brooks with a zoning issue for J.R. Brooks & Son (Brooks Tropicals' name at the time), Mr. Brooks suggested that Mr. Wheeling come work for the firm.

As CEO, Mr. Wheeling has spearheaded the efforts to make Brooks Tropicals the premier grower-supplier of tropical fruits and vegetables from south Florida and the Caribbean. During his tenure, the firm has become the leading importer of papayas for the North American market and the foremost supplier of Florida avocados into retail markets.

"I see three trends shaping the industry," said Mr. Wheeling. "They are food safety, vertical integration and large-scale farming. Brooks Tropicals is uniquely positioned for leveraging these trends in the marketplace."

Mr. Wheeling said that food safety has always been a top priority at Brooks Tropicals. "Three years ago, everyone was glad to hear it, but they were just as happy to skip the details," he said. "Since then, concerns about food safety have mushroomed. It left everyone from the farm to the produce aisle scrambling. We focused on taking the additional steps needed to assure the safe eating of our produce."

Mr. Wheeling added that the company's posting of near perfect food-safety audit results in its distribution center in Florida and its packing facilities in Belize and Florida have been crucial in instilling consumer confidence in its products.

Food-safety initiatives have led Brooks Tropicals to its now strong focus on vertical integration.

"Food safety has built a colossal reliance on every link in the agricultural chain," said Mr. Wheeling. "You have to know how your suppliers and distributors do business. But in doing so, you can spin a lot of wheels. I'd rather take that energy and grow quality produce, so it's vertical integration for us. Right now we grow, pack and ship over 70 percent of what we sell. The middleman role is not where we want to be."

One of the benefits of vertical integration is having a solid traceback program in place. Mr. Wheeling said that Brooks Tropicals has the ability to complete a traceback from customer input to problem isolation in less than two hours. "And we can do it down to the day and field the produce was picked," he added. "We've never had to use it, but it's a tremendous reassurance to us and our customers. Vertical integration also allows direct communications from sales to field, closely matching customer sales and upcoming promotions with what we pick, and even what we plant.

"It takes structure to be vertically integrated," continued Mr. Wheeling. "And food-safety audits aren't cheap. Surviving and thriving as a farmer has always meant taking everything in stride. The next 100 years will require more extensive resources. In order to have access to those resources, you've got to do a lot of farming. That's why I believe agricultural enterprises will only get larger. It's not something I particularly relish but that I necessarily realize." Mr. Wheeling was straightforward with his predictions about farming in Florida in the future.

"It's getting harder and harder to farm here in Florida," he said. "The state presents an increased cost differential both in wages and land that's hard to overcome. Our future in Florida will necessarily deal with problems such as the ambrosia beetle that threatens the very life of our avocado trees. Overall, it's miraculous that Miami-Dade County farming is still in existence. The suburbs can coexist with farms, but this encroachment will not cease. It will drive up land costs and eventually, but inevitably, turn farmers out."

Adding to the hurdles Florida farmers now face is what Mother Nature delivers. Mr. Wheeling said that citrus canker and other diseases are taking a toll. And Hurricanes Andrew and Dean have dealt producers heavy blows. Despite the many challenges, the farming industry has come back strong.

"In dealing with Mother Nature's wrath, we've learned one big lesson: the need to diversify geographically," said Mr. Wheeling. "That's why we grow 'SlimCado' avocados in Miami-Dade, starfruit on Florida's west coast, Caribbean Red and Caribbean Sunrise papayas in Belize, and it's why we have strategic partners in Mexico, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Jamaica."