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Alsum continues 40 years of expansion tradition

by Tad Thompson | January 11, 2011
In 1973, Glen Alsum began repacking potatoes in his 16-square-foot Friesland, WI, garage. Since then, the family business has steadily expanded. The firm was renamed Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. in September to reflect its widening involvement in the produce business.

Glen Alsum was killed in a plane crash in February 1981 and his third cousin, Larry Alsum, took over as general manager and owner in May 1981.

Today, the firm has 120 full-time employees. Rick Kantner, who previously ran the North American operations of precut salad company Fresh Express, two years ago became Alsum's director of sales and marketing.

On Jan. 11, Mr. Kantner spoke with The Produce News and described Alsum Farms & Produce as a full-service produce distributor for Wisconsin and northern Illinois. The company, which is 180 miles north of Chicago, offers customers 600 SKUs from a streamlined, food-safe, Primus-certified, 138,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse. "We have DSD — direct story delivery — to a number of accounts." The firm owns a fleet of 29 tractors and 60 refrigerated trailers to support the business.

The company also grows 1,400 acres of potatoes. Alsum’s farm is an active participant in the Healthy Grown production process that is endorsed by the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, the World Wildlife Federation and the University of Wisconsin.

A Healthy Grown certification requires adherence to a challenging set of grower standards involving integrated pest management and environmentally friendly practices.

Mr. Kantner said that Healthy Grown involves a “large commitment to growing products in the most healthy way for the land and wildlife.”

Beyond packing its own potatoes in the “Alsum Farms & Produce” brand, the company buys and repacks locally grown produce items as well as bulk potatoes. “We have a network of growers that we have been working with for years,” Mr. Kantner said.

The firm buys russets, red, gold, white and purple potatoes from other parts of the country, “based on availability and seasonality,” and ships potatoes 52 weeks a year. “We ship anyplace in the country we can realistically ship — which is primarily to the East and Southeast and not too much to the West.” In addition to table stock, “part of our business is selling potatoes for processing.”

In the fresh potato business, “we sell organics and all the specialties, like purple fingerlings. Whatever the customer needs.”

Mr. Kantner said, “Potatoes are the backbone of our business. When we sell to our national accounts, a lot is outside the state of Wisconsin, and 99.9 percent of that volume is potatoes and onions. Within the state of Wisconsin and in northern Illinois is where we have our retail business. With them, 30- 35 percent of the business is potatoes, and the rest is fruits and vegetables.”

In the produce distribution, Alsum’s “real thrust of business has been in retail grocery.” The firm does serve some “nearby restaurants. We do some business with state bids, with state institutions.” The company also sells produce locally to help school fundraisers “and support the community.”

At the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit convention in October 2010, Alsum introduced its first value-added product at its booth, which is the “Fast & Fresh” brand of red and gold potatoes, presented in microwavable packaging. “We don’t do this in russets. We had a little different idea.”

Mr. Kantner said that, generally, Alsum competes “with anyone who sells potatoes, onions and produce. In some cases, a company like ours is a pure wholesaler. We are the grower of potatoes. And therefore we have a source of supply. The trick is to have [a potato] supply 52 weeks a year.”