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Strategic sweet onion marketing deal joins East with West

Bland Farms in Glennville, GA, and Sweet Clover Produce LLC in Quincy, WA, have entered into a marketing partnership that will allow the companies to offer a year-round supply of high-quality sweet onions.

In addition to Vidalia and Walla Walla sweet onions, sourcing will include onions from South America. All product will be certified for sweetness by an independent lab.

"Delbert Bland has friends in the industry that know me, and one day Delbert called me and asked if I wanted to" enter into an agreement to market sweet onions, said Bill Brownfield, sales manager of Sweet Clover Produce, which markets Walla Walla sweet onions.

That deal has been solidified, and we're rocking and rolling, Mr. Brownfield told The Produce News Sept. 14. Sweet Clover Produce previously shipped over 2 million bags of sweet onions annually, but now with the deal with Bland, Mr. Brownfield said that the firm anticipates its annual volume will exceed 3 million bags.

Other onion growers and marketers involved in Sweet Clover Produce include Grigg & Sons, which owns Sweet Clover Produce, and the Hamada and Locati families.

Sweet Clover is strictly the marketing arm of Grigg & Sons, Mr. Brownfield said. Its labels include Sweet Clover, Colombia Pride, White Tiger, Basin Best, Ms. Walla Walla, Bland Farms, and Blue Mountain. It packs 40-, 25- and 10-pound cartons, all the consumer packs, RPCs for certain customers  every pack under the sun, Mr. Brownfield said, making particular mention of the four-pound consumer pack.

In addition to sweet onions, Sweet Clover Produce handles hybrid yellow, red and white onions, which will be a welcome addition to Bland Farms offerings along with the Walla Walla sweets.

Weve been wanting to expand our operation to allow for yellows, reds and whites  in addition to another sweet onion to bridge the gap between Vidalia and Peru, Mr. Bland said in a press release. With Bills involvement in the Walla Walla deal, it just makes sense.

Bland Farms handles sweet Vidalia onions from June through September, and after that from Peru and Uruguay, where it works with some growers with which it has established relationships. Bland also handles sweet onions from Chile, where it is involved in a joint venture with a grower.

All those onions, combined with the product from Sweet Clover in Washington, will result in a consistent, year-round supply of premium sweet onions for the groups retail, wholesale and foodservice customers, in addition to the other onion varieties.

Mr. Brownfield said in the press release, We now have the ability to service both retail and foodservice customers with both East Coast and West Coast distribution of the worlds finest sweet onions all year long.

Florida Tomato Exchange and Florida Tomato Growers Exchange meet at Joint Tomato Conference

NAPLES, FL  The Florida Tomato Exchange and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange held their annual membership meetings Sept. 8, at which time representatives from both groups discussed several issues affecting the industry and elected their boards of directors. The meetings were part of the Joint Tomato Conference held Sept. 6-11, here, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

The first meeting of the morning was the Florida Tomato Exchange. Executive Vice President Reggie Brown said that the FTE was active on a number of issues during the past year, and given the "turbulence" that growers started with, he hoped not to repeat anything like it again anytime soon. It's another year we survived, he said.

John Himmelberg of OConnor & Hannan LLP in Washington, DC, the exchanges legal counsel, detailed some of the issues on which the exchange had worked with Congress over the past year, which included country-of-origin labeling, methyl bromide, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, food safety and the farm bill.

Although Mr. Himmelberg said that CAFTA would benefit the Florida tomato industry, he said that the FTE opposed the agreement because it would allow tomatoes and peppers from the Dominican Republic to be imported under less-restrictive standards.

Mr. Himmelberg noted that FTE was looking at forming a crop-protection coalition to help growers keep as much methyl bromide as they can for as long as they can. In addition, he said that there is pending legislation that might lead to restrictions to the Florida marketing order and the matter was discussed with senators and representatives from Florida.

Before adjourning the meeting, the FTE elected its board of directors for 2005-06. The officers are President Kern Carpenter, Vice President David Neill, Secretary Jay Taylor and Treasurer James Grainger. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange meeting followed directly on the heels of the FTE meeting. Executive Vice President Reggie Brown said that the year had provided some interesting experiences with some fairly good successes and some fairly stellar failures.

Danny Raulerson, manager of the Quincy Tomato Growers Exchange, gave a report detailing the state of the industry in the Quincy, FL, area. Mr. Raulerson said that the industry was battling back, and though the days were still hot, the nights were cooling down. He said that labor always continues to be a question, especially with the events that had just taken place on the Gulf Coast with Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Raulerson noted that development has not affected the Quincy area, but pockets of development were starting to cause some concern.

Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Commission and manager of the California Fresh Tomato Growers Exchange, gave a report on the California tomato industry. He said that the major concern in the industry was the recent diversion of 1 million boxes of processing tomatoes to Mexico, where they were sold as fresh. This raised several food-safety questions, and California growers have helped to raise funds, some from their own pockets, to address this issue.

Mr. Beckman also said that though growers set a record in July with 9 million cartons produced, they had recently gone through a spell of 33 days with temperatures over 100 degrees. Mr. Beckman expected that the heat would lead to a decrease in volume over last year, thought he did not see it as being a problem for supply.

Following the same format as the FTE meeting, the FTGE elected its 2005-06 board of directors before adjourning. The boards officers are President James Grainger, Vice President Dan McClure, Secretary Larry Lipman and Treasurer Mike Sullivan.

FTC celebrates 50 years and unveils new TV ad campaign

NAPLES, FL  Celebrating its golden anniversary, the Florida Tomato Committee unveiled a series of four commercials that will mark the organization's first national television brand campaign for fresh Florida tomatoes during the 30th annual Joint Florida Tomato Conference held Sept. 6-11, here, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

The highlight of the FTCs organizational meeting, the commercials were shown as part of a presentation given by Samantha Winters, the committees director of education and promotion. "The objective of the ads is to increase consumer awareness and demand for fresh Florida tomatoes and to highlight their taste and health benefits," Ms. Winters told those assembled for the afternoon meeting held Sept. 8.

The commercials continue the FTCs latest media campaign, which was designed in part to help counteract some of the hype and hysteria created by last years season. Last seasons erratic pricing led tomatoes to become 'water cooler conversation because consumers were confused, especially when they were paying for tomatoes on their sandwiches, in restaurants, she said.

To combat this, Ms. Winters said that the FTC marketing subcommittee took a proactive role in order to let the consumer know that Florida tomatoes were available in abundant supply, and it needed a big event to do so. The result was a 1 million-pound truck tour, in which Florida tomatoes were delivered to food banks in 20 cities along the East Coast.

A video release of the tour was created and distributed to every broadcast station in the country. Ms. Winters said that the video was aired 220 times in 114 markets and reached an estimated 5.5 million viewers in major cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The video release was followed up with a national consumer print branding campaign in USA Today, which utilized four simple ads that Ms. Winters said were designed to cut through the clutter of other advertisements. The ads  which show a ripe tomato on a white background with such catchy sayings as what hamburgers dream of and bag some Lycopene to go reached an estimated 22 million readers and helped form the basis for the committees new television commercials.

Designed by the SenaReider advertising agency, the four commercials will be 15 seconds in length, half the length of the normal television commercial, which Ms. Winters said allows for double media impressions. They show a red, ripe tomato on a white background and have a female voice-over of four different and catchy messages about the many health benefits of Florida tomatoes. At the end of the commercial, a black-and-white do not refrigerate stamp appears under the tomato.

The commercials, which will air on the Food Network, HGTV, Discovery Health Network, Discovery Home Network and the DIY Network, are scheduled to air a total of 595 times from Jan. 2-29 and March 13 through April 9. They are targeted at women aged 25 to 46 and will be shown during cooking shows and other active programming where people are doing something, not passive programming like a movie, Ms. Winters said.

We timed the commercials to be released around the New Year when people are receptive to changing their behavior, she said. Consumer research shows that health is a large motivator in purchasing tomatoes. We want retailers to get behind the commercials as they are a great purchase motivator and we see it as a win-win for them.

To that end, Ms. Winters said that she hopes the commercials will generate retail excitement, and the committee has developed a sales sheet that touts their benefits for retailers. It suggests additional ads in local papers and advertising circulars in conjunction with the commercials. She also suggested aggressive displays prior, during and after the eight-week campaign to help retailers best capitalize on the commercials.

In the produce industry, it is ultimately still the consumer who decides what is bought, and what is good for the consumer is good for the retailer, she said. We see the health message as the future and the key to the future of the market. This is an all-out concerted effort by our members to expand and take our message to the next level.

The FTC also continues to promote Florida tomatoes to retailers by having display and sales contests, as well as workshops on merchandising and handling. Ms. Winters said that it has been a banner year in market development for the committees export programs. The FTC continued its market-access program in Japan and Canada, and it has received increased Canadian ad support. The FTC is also continuing to explore the Japanese market. According to Ms. Winters, the Japanese have a new slicing technology that needs firm tomatoes such as those grown in Florida.

In the foodservice arena, Ms. Winters said that the FTC sponsored its 14th annual Best of the Best Florida Tomato Student Chef Contest, which saw competitors from 20 culinary schools in the United States and Canada. The winning recipe was a fresh Florida tomato-orange soup by Steven Barnhart of Kendall College in Evanston, IL.

We want rising chefs to think of Florida tomatoes, she said.

In other committee matters, Mary Duryea of the University of Floridas Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences presented a research report that introduced several new varieties of Florida tomatoes slated for release. They include the Escuderdo from Harris Moran, which is Fusarium-wilt race 1,2 and 3 resistant and comparable to Florida 47, Sun Guard and Floralina.

Dr. Duryea spoke highly of Florida 8153, which was scheduled for a fall 2005 release, possibly under the name Flora-Lee. This variety has a deep red color, high lycopene content and good flavor, she said. Two other varieties  Florida 8363 and Florida 8365  are also scheduled to be released, but not until 2006, she added.

Outgoing Chairman David Murrah handed over the gavel to Dan McClure, the FTCs new chairman for the next two years. The committee also voted to maintain the regulations and marketing policy already in place, including a 2.5-cent per 25-pound box assessment for FTC members, and a one cent per 25-pound box assessment for members of the Florida Tomato Exchange and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

Specialty produce category gains advocate in radio chef

Which came first, the "foodie" movement or the specialty produce category? The question is as debatable as the chicken-or-the egg query. It is certain, however, that newly introduced food products  and people who want to enjoy them  continue to complement one another, and each thrives by the mutual benefits the other provides.

The food craze has gone far beyond what can be accurately referred to as even a trend. It has become a significant part of the professional culinary culture, and is quickly melding into the essence of the consumer market. It is a crusade, and one with no end, or even slowdown, in sight. And let's face it  much worse things could afflict the general public than taking on the hobby of fine food and beverage, especially when it is partnered with the current strong attention to health and nutrition.

Culinary art in all its forms is stirring up many new business opportunities, boiling over with educational formats and adding spice to world trade, and its all happening while those of us caught up in the foodie rage are sitting contentedly at table enjoying a seemingly non-ending supply of exotic and specialty foods from around the world.

As with most new movements, the public needs guidance and direction from the pros, and that is exactly what Chef Jamie Gwen is offering. Her weekly two-hour live radio show, The Chef Jamie Radio Show on Talk Radio 790, KABC, in Los Angeles advises audiences on ways to use products, responds to call-in cooking questions, offers culinary wisdom, restaurant news and reviews, and features guests from all corners of the culinary world. Although her perspective comes from a professional chefs standing, she has segued into the media end of the business, giving her a diversified and well-rounded colorful opinion on what home cooks want from the industry side of things.

I continually attempt to inspire my foodie audience by introducing new items and helping them learn how to use those products, she said. Food has become so much more than a trendsetting concept or fodder for conversation. There are more foodies in the world than ever before, and they are savvy and adventurous. They use new products as opportunities to gather around the table, to entertain one another and share their culinary art with family and friends.

Chef Jamie also appears monthly as a Celebrity Chef Guest Host on the Home Shopping Network with a signature Chef Jamie food line and cookware that she endorses. She became a certified sommelier in 2003, and in 2004 her third cookbook, So Much To Celebrate, was released. She promotes her sponsors with the same energy she applies in other aspects of her business. In the fresh fruit and vegetable category, she is a major proponent of Melissas/World Variety Produce, also headquartered in Los Angeles.

Melissas is a good example of what a progressive company is doing to help the food industry, said Chef Jamie. It consistently introduces new and exciting items, and thats what makes all categories of cooking fun for people from all walks of life.

She is currently singing the praises of Monstera, a unique tropical fruit offered by Melissas. It is about a foot long with green mosaic hexagon scales, also called tiles. It is eaten as it ripens, and that is apparent when the tiles become loose and, in some cases, pop off the fruit. The product is available only through September.

It tastes similar to cherimoya, and is indigenous to Cuba, Chef Jamie said. It looks like corn on the cob. You just leave it on your kitchen counter and eat a little at a time as it ripens. Its such a fun and interesting food item, and it made a perfect item to share with listeners of my show.

These products inspire consumers to be adventurous in their food choices, and motivate people to experiment more in their own kitchens, she contintued, adding that Companies like Melissas makes it possible for us to have the opportunities to experience these products.

As a professional, Chef Jamie also knows what goes on inside of kitchens in the foodservice industry. Asked if competition is driving the desire for specialty foods, she said that chefs exercise a very positive effect through competition.

There is tremendous camaraderie among chefs, she said. They love to share information with one another, be it a new technique or a newly discovered product. I stay connected to this side of the industry as tightly as possible because there is such a wealth of information shared in professional kitchens. Then I take that information back to my radio show and share it with everyone who listens. Foodservice chefs certainly wouldnt want me doing that if they were afraid of having their secrets revealed. They sincerely want to share, and to help people become better home cooks.

She also agreed that consumers who experience new items in restaurants will often buy the product and attempt to duplicate ot improvise a dish in their own kitchens. Or, they may learn about the item on a radio show like hers, a television program or in a magazine. All these levels of exposure are highly beneficial to the food industry.

Callers often want advice on how to use a food product, she said. Sometimes they want to know about the seasonality of foods. They may ask when a certain fruit or vegetable is in season, or what the best time of year is to buy certain products.

Anything we can do to promote the foodie movement is good, she continued. Cooking and dining are healthy, fun and exciting ways to spend time, bring people together, celebrate events  and even non-events  and to share in the earths bounty.

Chef Jamie is also the food correspondent for Fox 11 Televisions Good Day L.A. show. She also appears regularly on various national television programs, and writes a monthly column for Orange Coast magazine entitled Food For Thought.

The Chef Jamie Radio Show airs every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Pacific time.

Chef Jamie also shares a full plate of eat well news on her web site at www.chefjamie.com.

Immigration, COOL and farm bill top priorities for United

WASHINGTON  Money is always tight for specialty crops, but attendees of United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association's Washington Public Policy Conference, here, heard news that the budget for agriculture got even tighter as Congress responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

More than 275 members of the produce industry representing more than 30 states signed up for the Sept. 13-16 conference, which provided an opportunity to hear from elected leaders and lobby congressional staff on hot-button issues.

The record attendance shows a growing recognition of the need to personally meet with congressmen, said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United.

Many of the top officials spoke of the overwhelming challenge Hurricane Katrina left behind and the way the winds also shifted the political climate in Congress. When Congress wrote the last farm bill in 2002, "we had the luxury of writing it with a surplus," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Agriculture. In 2007, the country will be facing large deficits.

Theres lots of anxiety about the 2007 farm bill, he said, adding that world trade agreements could play an even larger role in influencing the next farm bill.

The senator said that his committee would be holding no hearings on the farm bill this year. Our plates loaded, he said, referring to the hurricane response, the looming vote on a Supreme Court nominee and the remaining appropriations work, all of which are likely to extend the legislative session to November of this year.

When asked about whether growers could see permanent relief from the estate tax  a recurring issue at the Sept. 14 meeting  Sen. Chambliss said that he favored eliminating it, but then Katrina hit. The enormous price tag expected to help rebuild the Gulf Coast may mean that everyone will need to look at a compromise measure, he said.

Its been a difficult couple of weeks, said USDA Deputy Secretary Charles Conner, who recounted USDAs response to help Hurricane Katrina victims. A relatively small amount of agricultural land was damaged by the hurricane, he said, and USDA has been spending an enormous amount of time coordinating food shipments to people in crisis.

Mr. Conner challenged the group to take a fresh look at the next farm bill, and for the produce industry to make support for future trade agreements a top priority.

He called on the produce industry to look at the farm bill not in terms of dollars, but on new policies that could help the industry feed the worlds growing population. I encourage you to be directly engaged in the farm bill process, he said. Look at the broader picture, he said, rather than getting bogged down on a specific target amount for the Section 32 program.

When asked whether the administration would support a stand-alone title for fruits and vegetables in the next farm bill, Mr. Conner said that it is very possible, and that he didnt see why we would shy away from looking at that at this point.

Mr. Conner then dished out some harsh words for those who did not support the latest free trade agreement. Trade agreements are vital for the industry to go forward, he said, and the upcoming trade negotiations in Hong Kong could give the United States a new direction in farm policy.

He described the bruising battle the administration suffered in order to pass the Central America Free Trade Agreement, and he blamed a small segment of the agriculture industry for bottling up CAFTA. CAFTA should have been non-controversial and it wasnt.

Three issues top Uniteds wish list

Along with the upcoming farm bill, two other issues have become major priorities for United this year and could end up being debated in Congress this fall: immigration reform and the future of country-of-origin labeling.

The need for a permanent and legal workforce is critical for the produce industry, with some in the industry fearing it could leave companies unable to harvest and pack fruits and vegetables, said Mr. Stenzel. With renewed attention from Congress and the Bush administration, this may be the time for some changes.

One Arizona grower in attendance said that he was facing a shortage of labor going into harvest time and that the issue was in desperate need of a fix.

Monte Lake, a lawyer with McGuinness, Norris & Williams, briefed the group on reworking the federal H2A guest worker program. Congress hasnt had the will to screen out all undocumented workers, but when it does growers will lose, he said.

Right now the H2A program is unworkable and provides a Soviet-style wage rate, said Mr. Lake. With Congress discussing immigration reform and President Bush rumored to be working on his own bill, this is a prime opportunity for the industry to speak of the pressing need to support the incorporation of AgJOBS framework into any comprehensive reform bill.

Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) continues to push the AgJOBS bill in the Senate, while all we hear in the House is enforcement, enforcement, enforcement, said Mr. Lake, who represents growers. If they succeed in shutting down borders and require documents to be electronically verified, thats a real threat to us.

Advocates for H2A reform are pushing for action this year, but the outcome is far from clear. As Sen. Chambliss said, Ive never seen an issue more sensitive than immigration. Finally, produce industry representatives traveled to Washington looking for relief from the looming country-of-origin program, which goes into effect for fruits and vegetables in October 2006. Leaders of the fruit and vegetable industry have come up with an alternative solution  draft legislative language that lays out a strong voluntary labeling program  as a way to bypass the costly recordkeeping requirements of a mandatory program.

It was a tough sell as some members of the industry wanted to repeal the farm bill measure and others wanted it to stand, said Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for United.

The Food Marketing Institute has yet to weigh in on the draft legislation, a move that would throw more weight behind the measure. I feel confident they will like this approach, said Mr. Guenther, who briefed the session on COOL issues.

But with time running out, the industry is also telling lawmakers that any deal to delay implementing COOL for meat products should include fresh produce, too.

Sen. Chambliss said that even though he supported mandatory COOL, he wants to make sure it is done right and doesnt bite into your profits.

People should know where their produce comes from, he told the group. But rather than a quick decision, I hope we take the time to do it right. Probably the place to do it will be the next farm bill, he said.