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Broccoli is the bread and butter at Smith's Farm in Maine

by John Groh | August 30, 2010
When a company has been involved in farming for more than 150 years, it's safe to say that the decades of experience bring expertise and passion that can be matched by few others.

Such is the case at Smith’s Farm, a Presque Isle, ME-based broccoli and potato grower-shipper that traces its farming roots back to 1859. With the fifth and sixth generations of the Smith family now running the business, Smith’s Farm brings an ideal mix of time-tested experience and forward- thinking enthusiasm to producing its crops.

Broccoli is the primary commodity grown at the Maine operation of Smith’s Farm (the firm has a farming operation in Hastings, FL, which also grows broccoli and potatoes), but that has not always been the case. When Oliver Carpenter Smith and his wife, Isabella, first arrived in Mars Hill, ME, in 1859, their foray into farming involved potatoes, which the family first produced on a commercial scale in 1888.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that fifth-generation family members Lance Smith and Greg Smith, who are cousins, first introduced broccoli onto the scene at Smith’s Farm, and then only in a limited fashion, with 50,000 cases of product.

In the 20-plus years that have since passed, Smith’s Farm has become a leading shipper of the commodity on the East Coast. At its Maine location, between 3,500 and 4,000 acres are in production, yielding 1.3 million to 1.5 million cases during the July-through-October season. In Florida, another 1,000 acres are devoted to broccoli, which is available from December through April.

Broccoli from both locations is marketed under the "Stag" brand and is available in iced, iceless and shrink-wrapped options in 14- and 18-count bunches, as well as crowns, Asian crowns and florets.

Smith’s Farm has had its ups and downs with broccoli this season.

“It was an early spring, so we were harvesting the first week of July, which is earlier than ever before,” said Tara Smith-Vighetti, a member of the family’s sixth generation, who is director of marketing for Smith’s Farm and its sales arm, H. Smith Packing Corp.

Maine product is in direct competition with California during the summer months. What’s more, lower demand on both the foodservice and retail fronts due to the down economy left more product on the open market, which kept early-season prices modest at best.

“And California has a much higher yield per acre than Maine — maybe 40 percent higher — so our growing costs are much higher as a result,” said Ms. Smith-Vighetti.

But Smith’s Farm offers distinct advantages over California product, not the least of which is its proximity to its customers.

“We sell direct to almost every major chain east of the Mississippi River,” said Ms. Smith-Vighetti, who works from the company’s Florida location. “We can have product in a store in two days versus five days for product from California. That gives our customers a big advantage for freshness and shelf life.”

The close proximity also offers customers a huge savings on freight, she added.

High quality and strong volume ushered in the Maine broccoli deal this summer, but the extreme heat wave that gripped much of the Eastern Seaboard in mid-July slowed things down a bit.

“Broccoli likes cool nights and warm days,” Ms. Smith-Vighetti said Aug. 19. “Now that we are in that pattern again, volume is exploding and quality is outstanding. Fresh, local and all-natural from one of the most pristine environments — that is what we are promoting.”

While Ms. Smith-Vighetti monitors the sales and marketing end of the business, two other members of the sixth generation play key roles on the production side. Her sister, Emily Smith, and cousin, Zachary Smith, are owners and partners in the operation. While they wear many different hats at the family-owned business, their key responsibilities include maximizing yields and developing new varieties through trials, which number nearly 100 each year.

In any given year, there are between 15 and 20 varieties planted for commercial production. Those varieties are selected based on how they meet optimum outcomes in various weather conditions as well as how they meet customer specifications.

“Many retailers have expanded their broccoli specs beyond the typical U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements, which makes variety and lot selection key to meeting customer needs,” said Ms. Smith-Vighetti. “Emily and her field managers choose which lots to cut when and for what customer based on their individual requests.”

Food safety and traceability are also priorities for Smith’s Farm. “We are third-party audited by Primus, which covers everything from the harvest crews to the packing and cooling facility,” she said. “We are also audited by USDA for our Good Agricultural Practices, which are headed by Emily.”

Regarding the Produce Traceability Initiative, Ms. Smith-Vighetti said that Smith’s Farm has made major investments toward being compliant and is on schedule to meet the PTI milestones.

Compared to her sixth-generation counterparts, Ms. Smith-Vighetti was a late-comer to the business. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts and then earned an MBA and master’s degree in accounting from Northeastern University in Boston prior to working as an auditor.

“Emily and Zach were born to do this,” said Ms. Smith-Vighetti. “They have been into it their entire lives. For as long as I can remember, Emily and Zach have been involved in all parts of the operation. Everyone knew that after they finished college, they would return home to farm.”

The lure of family ties brought Ms. Smith-Vighetti to Smith’s Farm in 2004, and her outgoing personality made her a perfect fit to head marketing efforts for Smith’s Farm and H. Smith Packing Corp.

“One of the reasons we are so successful is because our family has been able to work so well together,” Ms. Smith-Vighetti said. “Transferring assets as well as responsibilities between the generations can be a challenge, but it works because we respect their experience and wisdom and what they built, and they respect our passion and what we bring with technology and new ideas.”