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L&M sees growth in potato, onion and sweet potato programs

by Rand Green | December 06, 2010
L&M Cos. Inc., headquartered in Raleigh, NC, and with branch offices in 12 other locations around the country, is a vertically integrated supplier of an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables, functioning variously as grower, packer, shipper, marketer, broker, distributor, importer and exporter.

Potatoes and onions constitute one of the company's four core commodity categories — the others being apples, pears and cherries; limes, mangos and Texas-grown produce; and a wide array of vegetables.

According to Tracy Fowler, general manager for potatoes and onions, the company has experienced significant expansion in both its potato program and its onion program over the past couple of years.

In the onion program, "two years ago we purchased Griffin-Holder Co.," based in Rocky Ford, CO, giving L&M three onion facilities in Colorado. That is “a storage crop deal,” Mr. Fowler said. Also, “we have a California onion crop in Calipatria,” in the Imperial Valley, “which we purchased through the Griffin- Holder deal.”

“We have a Western Slope deal in Colorado also. We are doings sales for one of the growers over there,” he said.

L&M also does “all of the sales for Carzalia Valley Produce” in Columbus, NM, as well as for A-W Produce in Weslaco, TX, he said.

In addition, “we do North Carolina and South Carolina onions,” and during the spring season, “we bring across some Mexico whites and yellows to fill that spring gap. We’ve got a complete year-round program with basically no gaps at all.”

This year, L&M will be increasing its onion acreage in every location except California, giving the company an increase of between 10 percent and 15 percent in acreage, he said.

When The Produce News talked to Mr. Fowler Nov. 16, the harvest had wrapped up in all of the U.S. locations except the Western Slope of Colorado. “We are heavily into” that harvest of yellow onions currently, and they are “just beautiful,” he said. “Everything else is in the barn.”

L&M’s next fresh onion crop will be crossing from Mexico into the company’s Weslaco facility beginning in mid-February, and that will be followed by the A-W deal in Texas. Those onions are “in the ground already,” he said.

In the potato category, “what is new for us this year that is pretty big is we took over all the sales this August” for Worley & McCullough Inc. in Monte Vista, CO, which is owned by Jim McCullough. That deal will consist of more than two million packages, “predominantly russets with some Yukons,” he said. “We are having an extremely great quality year. Demand for potatoes is good at this point” and is expected to grow. “The markets are good.”

The new Worley-McCullough deal fits well into “our year-round potato and onion program,” Mr. Fowler said. “We want to be that one-stop shop, that one phone call” that the buyers make for potatoes and onions. In about 90 percent of all cases for customers in the United States, the same buyer buys both potatoes and onions, “and we want to have that seamless supply” so they can “call one source” to meet all of their potato and onion needs.

As in the past, L&M will have a red, white and Yukon program “going up the East Coast,” he said.”We are doing some major renovations in Palatka, FL, and getting some new machinery in there” as well as expanded cooler space, to handle the company’s Florida potato crop. “Then we come right up the coast” to the Carolinas, then to Delaware and Maine.

Additionally, “we are currently shipping Mount Vernon, Washington, reds and Yukons” and have finished the reds and russets from Eastern Washington where L&M handles sales for A&R Produce in Sunnyside, he said.

In Idaho, although L&M no longer represents Pleasant Valley Potato Inc. in Aberdeen, “they are still selling to us,” he said. In addition, “we do have supplies contracted out, and we are shipping out of Idaho daily” from various suppliers. L&M has “a nice future plan in the works” for Idaho, but he said that he could not yet disclose details.

“To be completely frank, we need to be big” in Idaho, he said.

In addition to potatoes and onions, L&M is big in sweet potatoes, Mr. Fowler said. “We grow our own sweet potatoes in Georgia and North Carolina” and have just taken over sales for shippers in Mississippi and North Carolina. “Over the past two years, we have probably quadrupled our acres” in sweet potatoes, and the product has enjoyed “excellent demand.” The main variety is Covington, but the company also sells Beauregard, Boniato and several others.