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FPFC tour gives retail and foodservice community an upclose look at the Salinas Valley

A busload of retailers, foodservice operators, suppliers and allied industry toured the Salinas Valley as part of a Fresh Produce & Floral Council tour held Wednesday, June 1.

The tour was designed to give retail and foodservice personnel a first-hand look at the production element of some of the products they sell and promote.

Three operations -- California Florida Plant Co., California Giant and Monterey Mushrooms -- were included in the full-day program.

At the flower operation, company spokesperson Margaret Hasegawa took the crowd through a visual and narrative of the company's diversification efforts over the past five decades.

The firm began as a flower breeder of a single type and has moved into other areas including fruit, vegetable and flower plant breeding; it is also a grower and shipper of dwarf carnations and other crops.

Cal Giant representatives discussed the firm's fresh and juice operations, including the company's proprietary and innovative "Just Strawberries" fruit drink. Randall Freeman, formerly of the Del Monte Food Co., recently joined the organization and is helping to propel sales of this new fresh strawberry byproduct.

At Monterey Mushrooms, a number of fungus experts walked the group through the many stages of producing mushrooms. Those perfect mushrooms don't grow on trees. Instead they are created through a scientific mixture of compost, spores, darkness, humidity, temperature and growing talent.

At the end of the day -- literally each day -- Monterey Mushrooms produces hundreds of thousands of perfect mushrooms that are shipped all over the country.

(Photos from this event appear in the June 6 issue of The Produce News.)

New Jersey produce long a mainstay at Incollingo's

PENNS GROVE, NJ -- With a cool spring pushing back the start of the New Jersey vegetable season by 10 days to two weeks so far this year, Boston lettuce, asparagus and hothouse tomatoes were about the only Jersey items in the produce department at the Incollingo's Family Market store here in mid-May.

But that will all change as spring turns into summer, when this store will put Jersey produce items figuratively -- and literally -- front and center.

The 1,300-square-foot produce department is a key part of this 17,600-square-foot store, and within the department, the center island display is perhaps the prime location for showcasing quality produce, good deals or both.

It is this island display that will feature all of New Jersey's bounty when the season gets rolling in June.

"The center island will all be local products when the season gets going," said Edward (Cookie) Incollingo Jr., one of the owners of this three-store chain in the southwestern part of the state, right near the Delaware River and the city of Wilmington, DE.

That center island and the rest of the produce department will also sport colorful point-of-purchase materials, which it obtains from Bozzuto's Inc. via the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. Bozzuto's, headquartered in Cheshire, CT, has been the retailer' s primary supplier since January of this year.

Like any modern supermarket, the produce department here is stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables from around the world to satisfy the expectations of today's consumers, who seem to want their favorite items all year long. But as a supermarket with New Jersey roots, Incollingo's knows that during the summer months, it also has to give its customers the local items they demand.

"Produce -- around here it's very important, said Mr. Incollingo. "People around here do know their produce. They know what's going on. He added, "These people would much rather have local product, and we like to feature local product.

Local produce may be in especially good demand this year, not only because consumers traditionally look for it but also because of the high cost of fuel, which has pushed freight rates higher and which subsequently gives local product a distinct advantage.

"We're going to look hard at the local deal this year because of the high freight rates, said Jim DiMatteo, a merchandiser at Bozzuto's who works with the Incollingo's chain. "We're going to dig a little deeper this year. We're really going to try to use local product whenever we can.

To help procure those local items, Mr. DiMatteo mentioned M. D'Ottavio Produce Inc., Diamond Blueberry Inc. and the Jersey Fruit Cooperative Association as three examples of well-known companies with which Bozzuto's works. "People from New Jersey really want Jersey products. They're very loyal to Jersey products. I hear that all the time, he

said. "We want to give the retailer the best product at the best price. And we will not compromise on quality.

Within that local category, according to Mr. Incollingo, the three most popular items are sweet corn, tomatoes and melons. "People actually wait for those three items, he said. And in addition to the items procured from Bozzuto's, Mr. Incollingo has for many years worked with individual growers in the southern New Jersey area to provide fresh produce on a direct basis. He mentioned Fred DePalma -- a history teacher by day and a farmer the rest of the time -- as just one example of a well-known and respected grower with whom the retailer has worked for many years. As Mr. Incollingo put it, "You call him in the morning and it's here by lunchtime. Now that's Jersey Fresh!

Fresh is of course the key to all supermarket produce departments. For this supermarket in Penns Grove, which Mr. Incollingo described as a blue collar area, ("It's more of a meat and potatoes type store), shoppers tend to look for the more basic types of fresh produce, including the tomatoes, sweet corn, melons, blueberries and other vegetables for which the Garden State is known. Consumers also demand outstanding quality and freshness in those basic items, said Mr. Incollingo, which is why his relationships with Bozzuto' s and the local New Jersey growers are so important.

Those demanding shoppers have many outlets to choose from, a situation well understood by Mr. Incollingo. "I have to keep up with the competition, he stated. "But our competition is not just other supermarkets. It's the roadside stands, which adorn the local highways in the state, catering to tourists headed to the Jersey shore as well as to local residents, and which carry excellent quality produce with a just-picked allure. "We're out there banging heads with the roadside stands.

Incollingo's Family Market began in 1983 when Edward Incollingo Sr. bought the existing store, a Pantry Pride, which had been on the site since 1958. The supermarket in Stratford, NJ, was bought in 1997, and the one in Salem, NJ, was bought in 2003.

The senior Mr. Incollingo, who will be 70 years old in August, is retired. The three-store chain is now owned by his four children: Edward, 44, who is vice president of the company; Mario, 40, who is president; Patricia Cardoso, 43, who is vice president and secretary-treasurer; and Joseph, 38, who is vice president.

(Photos at this retailer appear in the June 6 issue of The Produce News.)

Watermelon supplies are expanding toward July 4

Watermelon volumes were building just before the Memorial Day holiday, with volumes expected to be adequate for demand in the early days of June.

Watermelon prices on the verge of the Memorial Day holiday were "substantially higher" than those of the Memorial Day of 2004, "although prices are higher because there is not enough volume, Lloyd Rosen of Wm. Manis Produce Marketing Co. in Plant City, FL, said May 24.

By May 22, 2004, Florida had shipped 4,400 loads of seedless watermelons. Using round figures, Arnold Mack of McMelon Inc. in Lake Wales, FL, said that USDA figures as of May 22, 2005 indicate that just 3,100 loads of melons had been shipped.

The 30 percent drop in early-season 2005 watermelon volume was attributable to cold damp weather in Florida.

"On the bright side, the market is stronger than normal in a year when South Florida acreage was also normal. Yields were down so much that the region shipped 1,300 fewer loads. Mr. Mack observed, "When the markets remain strong, it doesn't take as many loads when you make more money per load. "If we had 1,300 loads of additional volume, we would have needed better weather [in the consuming region] up north to keep up with it.

Watermelon consumption is heavily dependent on weather conditions in the consuming market. If the weather in a market is summer-like, consumers are more apt to buy watermelons. Mr. Mack said that if the cold, wet early spring in the Northeast had been otherwise in 2005, there would have been a greater imbalance between supply and demand. As the season transpired, a balance worked out well. In a May 24 interview, Mr. Mack indicated that, as south Florida was reaching a volume of shipments late in its season, "Now we are behind on orders. If the weather in the north was better, we would be more behind.

Mr. Mack said that seeded watermelons are experiencing declining demand except for traditional customers in the southeastern United States. Still, he said that May 22 figures showed that south Florida's shipments of seeded watermelons are 1,200 loads below 2004 volumes. That is half the 2,400 loads shipped by May 22, 2004. The total reduction of 2,500 trailerloads of seeded and seedless watermelons "is a lot of melons, Mr. Mack observed.

"Texas is up a little from last year through the same period, Mr. Mack noted, "Although they're not up enough to make up for 2,500 loads. Mr. Mack said that Texas' watermelon shipping volume up to May 22 is about 1,000 truckloads, which is about 500 above the same period in 2004. "Texas growers don't ship as early as Florida growers, he said. With reduced volume in Florida, more Texas growers were shipping to the East Coast this spring. Texas growers have a better early watermelon crop than a year ago.

Mr. Mack said that north Florida and Georgia watermelon growers will be shipping later than normal this year. Still, "we could get into a normal supply by the end of June or the first of July if the weather stays good.

Mr. Rosen said on May 24 that Florida's southernmost watermelon growing district, which includes Clewiston, Labelle and Immokalee, is at the tail end now. The growing areas in the middle of Florida were beginning to ship.

Mr. Rosen expected Georgia to begin shipping about June 5 or 12. "Western Florida and Alabama will come into production about the same time.

In Florida, Mr. Rosen said, "the very early crop acreage was down and yields were down and the size of the yield was substantially down. The early deal was very high-priced with light volume. A few farmers have had substantial hits with inclement weather, replanting, excessive rain and diseases in vines in some instances. The early deal was not a good one. We were two to three weeks late. Now we're 10 to 14 days late in mid- to northern Florida, and I understand Georgia has been pushed back. That is good and bad news. There has been a real strong good weather pattern in the Midwest, so the Midwest has had good business in the third week of May. "The Northeast has been 15 degrees below normal, which is bad for watermelon sales. It's good that not enough volume had come in in the first place. Mother Nature is dictating a balance of supply and demand. We started to see increases of supply today. The quality has been good right along. With the cool weather, the watermelons grew slowly and strongly. Sugars are way up. The texture is very palatable and the watermelons give a very desirable eating experience. The fruit we do have is of exceptional eating quality.

Mr. Rosen said that watermelons "were trading in the range of $20 to $22 on 45-size seedless, but that seems a little bit weaker today, May 24. "The market won't collapse because there is not the volume to warrant a crash. It will ease a little. That is a factor as more areas are coming in while old areas are still giving some production. Watermelon prices around the same date a year ago were $12 to $14 for 45-count seedless watermelons.

Mr. Rosen said that the national watermelon business "will peak for the July 4 business. History suggests that business runs through Labor Day, but the real season peaks July 4 and goes downhill from there in demand. Promotions will change in nature as we get into August. The business changes to cut melons: cut quarters and halves.

Mr. Rosen noted, "There is still good demand for seeded watermelons in the Southeast, which is a traditional market for seeded melons, which are a large piece of fruit.

(A full report on watermelons appears in the June 6 issue of The Produce News.)

Webinar to explore opportunities presented by dietary guidelines

Government, public relations and industry experts will be on hand June 28 when the Produce Marketing Association offers a Fresh Produce Academy webinar entitled "Taste, Convenience, Profits: Marketing the New Dietary Guidelines to Increase Produce Consumption."

The webinar will explore the marketing potential of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The updated dietary guidelines strongly emphasize that consumers increase their daily intake of fruits and vegetables.

PMA President Bryan Silbermann believes that with the release of the guidelines, together with the new MyPyramid system, fresh produce marketers have a wealth of federally recommended tools that will help to increase fruit and vegetable sales.

"The dietary guidelines present a tremendous opportunity for our industry to reach out to consumers and help them make more healthful decisions on the foods they eat each day, and it's up to us to get the word out and make these guidelines a reality in the American diet, Mr. Silbermann noted.

The PMA webinar enables retailers, foodservice operators, grower-shippers and distributors to hear directly from the experts about how to incorporate the guidelines into marketing programs. Speaking during the event will be Steve Christensen, deputy administrator for Special Nutrition Programs, Food & Nutrition Service-USDA; Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, who will provide an overview of the foundation's plans for a new produce industry initiative; Mary Christ-Erwin of Porter-Novelli Public Relations, who will offer public relations solutions specific to fresh produce; and Mr. Silbermann, who will share how PMA will actively promote taste and convenience messages related to the guidelines.

The webinar, which will be held from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. EDT, will conclude with an interactive question-and-answer session that will address industry challenges in marketing the guidelines. Fees for this event are $199 for PMA members and $398 non-members. To register or to receive more details, log on to www.pma.com/Webinar/DietaryGuidelines.

Vidalia Onion Committee manager moving on

Jeffery Hall, who has helped guide the Vidalia Onion Committee in Vidalia, GA, during the past year as manager after the organization was left reeling from a corruption scandal perpetrated by its prior manager, Tina Wheeler, will resign to take a position with National Onion Lab Inc. in nearby Collins, GA.

Mr. Hall, who joined the committee in June 2004 after a 15-year stint with Goodwill Industries of the Coastal Empire Inc. in Savannah, GA, where he rose to vice president of administration, quickly acclimated to the sweet Vidalia onion deal and put together and executed a tremendous public relations campaign for the deal that included several national television appearances in which he promoted Vidalia onions and a new mascot of his design.

The program that Mr. Hall developed and executed to promote Vidalia onions was extensive. In May, he was in New York City with the committee's newest mascot, Sweetie, a Las Vegas showgirl onion created by Mr. Hall.

"I tried to modernize the whole brand of the Vidalia onion. I want it to be the 'in'ion," Mr. Hall told The Produce News in a March interview.

Also with Mr. Hall was Yumion, the longtime Vidalia Onion Committee mascot, which belongs to the city of Vidalia Convention & Visitors Bureau; Miss Vidalia Onion Mickey Dodge; and Nancy Hillis, who is the real person depicted as Mandy in John Berendt's book Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, which was also adapted into a movie.

In New York, magazines such as Bon App?tit and Southern Living interviewed Mr. Hall. He also got exposure for Vidalia onions on morning-talk television shows where he spoke with the hosts about the onions or did cooking demonstrations. He appeared on the national cable morning talk show Fox & Friends, which is broadcast live from New York City, and he was on NBC's Today show co-anchored by Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.

The troupe of Vidalia onion representatives also visited the Tribeca Grill, a famous downtown New York landmark restaurant.

After New York, four more cities hosted the group: Nashville, TN, Orlando, FL, New Orleans, and Fort Worth, TX. In those cities, he again appeared with his entourage on either national or syndicated morning television talk shows promoting Vidalia onions. On May 18, he was in Fort Worth on the morning talk show At Home Live!, hosted by Chuck and Jenni Borsellino.

Beginning in May and continuing into June, Mr. Hall conducted a retail display contest with attractive prizes. Participating stores have been submitting display photos and sales figures to the committee, and the top three stores will be named winners.

"We will actually go visit the stores [that win and] award prizes, and the top prize is a trip to Hollywood, reinforcing the committee's theme, Vidalia onions -- the star of the meal, said Mr. Hall.

David Burrell, president of National Onion Labs, a sweetness certifier for sweet onions in Vidalia and around the world, said that Mr. Hall's role with NOL will be twofold. "Jeff has some excellent business management skills, he said. "We need to increase our depth of staff in that area. And second is to be available to our clients to help explain and understand the nuances of onion flavor -- basically as a technical resource for our clients.

Mr. Hall will begin at his new post July 1, and Mr. Burrell said, "We are pretty excited to have him on board. Jeff is really a great guy.