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A&W works with seed firms to develop tomato varieties that please consumers

by Rand Green | December 14, 2010

Over the last several years, Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce in San Diego has been "evolving away from what I would call being a traditional grower- shipper, which is more production drive, to being more of a customer partner, which is more market driven," said Mark Munger, vice president, in an interview with The Produce News Nov. 24.

One important way in which that evolution manifests itself is in tomato variety selection, he explained.

“The traditional model is we would try to identify varieties of tomatoes that were best for the ranch,” while still acceptable to the market. “those were the varieties that would produce the best and were really solid long shelf life-type varieties” that the ranch could grow profitably.

“It is important to keep the ranch profitable,” he said. But “the customer is really almost more important. You can't put the ranch out of business trying to come up with a perfect product for the customer, but it is really important that the consumer be as big a part of the decision, when you are selecting varieties, as the ranch is.”

That recognition “really spawned a whole new activity in our company, which was to make marketing a bigger part of varietal selection across the board,” he said.

Whereas previously the process of identifying and selecting varieties for the company to grow had been done by the selection team, it is now a joint effort.

On the marketing side, “for the last three years we have been really out there listening to what our customers are telling us they would like and helping our customers realize that they can have a voice in varietal development,” he said.

A&W has also developed close working relationships with several seed companies, not just in evaluating what they offer but in communicating directly to the tomato breeders what characteristics the customers desire in the product.

“While we continue to work with all the seed companies, like Syngenta and Nunhems,” Mr. Munger said, A&W has, over the past three years, developed a particularly close “strategic relationship” with the Vilmorin group, headquartered in France, which is the parent company of several major seed firms, including U.S.-based Harris-Moran and Israel-based Hazera Genetics. “We have gone a little deeper with this company in that we are able to speak directly to the breeders about what we are seeing and hearing from the marketplace,” he said.

When The Produce News talked to Mr. Munger, he was preparing to travel to Israel the following week, in company with Gino Burnett, A&W’s vice president of production. “We will spend a week” looking at and evaluating Hazera tomato varieties. “Between us we will probably look at between 300 and 500 different varieties of tomatoes” and taste most of them,” then select some of them for further evaluation in A&W’s own test plots in various growing regions in Mexico to “make sure we can grow them, and hopefully improve on them by focusing on different types of cultural practices.”

The trip is “one of several” that he and Mr. Burnett do “in tandem” so that marketing and production are both involved in the decisions. Often, “there is a positive tension between us,” he said, “because we are constantly trying to sell each other on what we feel is more important … because the farm has got to win, but the consumer has got to win, too.”

Already, A&W has identified, evaluated and introduced to the market “some really fantastic varieties” in the Roma, round and grape tomato categories with improved flavor and texture, providing consumers with a better eating experience, he said. One or two new varieties will be introduced shortly.

“My passion,” he said, “is finding those varieties that taste fantastic that also can get vetted out by our production team so we can actually grow them.”

A&W grows tomatoes in Baja California, Mexico, for summer and fall production and in Culiacan, Sinaloa, for winter and spring. The Culiacan product comes through Nogales, AZ, although this year A&W will also be doing some crossings in McAllen, TX for eastern and Midwestern customers who prefer to load there.

In Nogales, A&W is now doing its warehousing in the new Del Campo building, which is “great for us because our volume has gotten so big with our Culiacan deal that we were just really squeezed in our other facility,” Mr. Munger said.

In its production operations in Culiacan, A&W has gone from a two-cycle planting strategy to planting in three cycles. “Basically what that means,” he said, “is we have staggered our plantings into three major production periods” in order to have “better overlaps” and to “minimize gaps” particularly mid- season during the transition from early to late plantings. Another benefit is “we are getting Roma tomatoes and round tomatoes out of the field earlier than we ever had before.”

A&W is now “on programs, for the most part, with the majority of our business,” Mr. Munger said, “and we have to keep steady production going to feed the contracts and keep our customers in tomatoes.”

A&W is doing “more and more custom packing for our individual customers” and last year expanded the packingshed in Culiacan “to give us more room to do custom packing,” he said.