Stemilt expands marketing program featuring Sesame Street characters

One of the nation's leading tree fruit shippers and some of the more beloved characters on children's television are teaming up to bring the health and nutrition of fresh apples and cherries to consumers and retailers nationwide.

Stemilt Growers Inc., based in Wenatchee, WA, and Sesame Workshop, the non-profit educational organization behind Sesame Street, have partnered to encourage families to enjoy fresh cherries and apples, according to Stemilt Marketing Director Roger Pepperl. Stemilt will present some of its new point-of-purchase displays featuring the Sesame Street characters at the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association produce expo and conference May 7-9 in Chicago.

The relationship between Stemilt and Sesame Workshop follows a successful Stemilt cherry promotion last summer featuring Sesame Workshop's "Healthy Habits for Life" initiative and the Sesame Street character Elmo, Mr. Pepperl said.

"Healthy Habits for Life" is a program started by Sesame Workshop in 2004 promoting health, nutrition, physical activity, and education to preschoolers and their caregivers. Stemilt was part of the "Healthy Habits for Life" campaign delivering powerful messages last summer about the nutritional content of cherries.

Stemilt created cherry merchandising displays, highlighted by a cherry-juggling Elmo, that included nutrition facts about cherries. The displays were distributed to stores nationwide. Point-of-purchase cards and children's activity sheets were also part of the displays.

Retailers embraced Stemilt's cherry promotion, and as a result consumers bought bundles of cherries, Mr. Pepperl said, adding that two medium-size retailers that used the merchandising units in their stores increased their cherry sales and volume by nearly 50 percent compared to the same period the previous year.

"This promotion was one of the best programs Stemilt has ever conducted," Mr. Pepperl said in a statement. "Our growers were thrilled with the impact Elmo made on consumers and retailers."

Brian Vertrees, Stemilt customer promotions manager, said that the success of the Elmo cherry program demonstrated the effectiveness of partnering with such a well-recognized brand as Sesame Street. The Sesame Street characters will now be featured on both cherry and apple displays to encourage children and their families to eat fresh fruit. "The consumer recognition of Sesame Street, its programming and products, and the wholesome, positive image of fresh fruits like apples and cherries make for a perfect match," Mr. Vertrees said. "We are very excited to deepen our relationship with Sesame Workshop."

Stemilt plans to roll out a new apple bin that will be available to its customers nationwide. The apple bin, designed to merchandise bagged fruit, features Elmo as a farmer and Cookie Monster peeking out from behind a giant apple exclaiming, "Crunchy! Sweet! Fun to Eat!"

"The apple bin is fun, bright, and very easy for produce managers to use," Mr. Vertrees said. "No set-up is necessary at store level because the promotional materials are right on the bin. It will have huge appeal for kids, parents and retailers."

Stemilt is in good company with other food industry members who are also participating in "Healthy Habits for Life." These companies include Earth's Best, makers of organic and natural children's foods, Musselman's Apple Sauce and Sunkist Growers. All launched programs in 2005 featuring the familiar faces from Sesame Street promoting healthy food choices.

"We are thrilled to work with Stemilt again to leverage the appeal of the Sesame Street characters to encourage healthy eating habits for young children and their families," said Maura Regan, vice president and general manager of global licensing for Sesame Workshop. "Including healthy fruits and vegetables in a child's diet gives them the energy they need to continue laughing and learning with their favorite Sesame Street friends."

Supply gaps possible in Salinas

SALINAS, CA -- A relentless stretch of rainfall has backed up harvesting and planting operations in the Salinas Valley that may have implications in the marketplace in months to come.

Harvesting of most commodities in the Salinas Valley has begun within the past few weeks. The harvest is going for commodities such as Romaine, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach. The harvest for Iceberg lettuce starts this week. Ken Silveira, president of Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle, said that rainfall at this time of year is much more problematic than rainfall from January through March. In those months, two weeks of planting equals one week of harvest. But now, heading into the third week of April, one week of planting equals one week of harvest.

"In January, if you miss planting a week, you can make it up the following week," Mr. Silveira said, adding that such is not the case at this time of year. Any two-day coupling of rain can wipe out working in those fields for a week because the ground already is saturated. Ruts made by tractors can become depressions in which water can collect and in general make the harvesting effort more costly. Over the winter, cover crops add structure back to the soil in the Salinas Valley. T&A and many other Salinas Valley growers can't get into the fields to disc under cover crops and prepare the ground for the next planting. To disc under cover crops and get the beds in shape and planted takes weeks. So growers' planting schedules - determined months in advance - have largely become obsolete.

The circumstances suggest possible supply shortages for a number of commodities, such as the lettuces. As a result, the market may be setting up for price spikes in the summer months. This is good news for grower-shippers not under fixed-price contracts, but not very good news for competitors whose crop is under a fixed-price contract and who stand to not reap the rewards of price spikes.

"It's ideal to cover your contracts and have high market prices, but they don't usually come hand-in-hand," Mr. Silveira said. "People crying about [fixed-price] contracts now have enjoyed them the last 18 months when lettuce was $6."

T&A has some contracts with processors and retailers, some of which are fixed price and others that are based on volume but are at market price or trigger off market price. Historically, the highest prices for Iceberg lettuce -- where prices spiked to $40-$50 per carton -- were fueled by value-added processors needing to buy up lettuce fields in order to meet such contractual demands. Two such price spikes occurred in the past five years.

Bob Martin, general manager for King City, CA-based Rio Farms, thinks a turnaround in the weather is in store and that the disruption to supplies may be minimal. Rio Farms grows a broad variety of commodities for Salinas Valley companies such as Growers Express, River Ranch Farms, Taylor Farms and Fresh Express.

"I grew up here [in the Salinas Valley], and I've never, ever seen weather like this," Mr. Martin said, adding that he was able to plant for only a day or a day-and-a-half before more rain returned. "You get 100 acres in every few days. It's just another ordeal we have to go through."

King City sits about 40 minutes south of Salinas. The ground north of Gonzales - an in-between location - is in a bit worse shape than King City, Mr. Martin said. "Some ground has ruts that are two feet deep," Mr. Martin said. "Minimum tilling can't be done."

John Baillie, principal of Salinas-based Baillie Family Farms/Tri-Counties Packing and chairman of the Grower- Shipper Association of Central California, said that persistent rain has knocked planting and harvesting schedules out of whack. He anticipates harvesting perhaps a third less lettuce acreage as a result of weather conditions, and that may carry over to broccoli and cauliflower as well, he said.

"The tractor knocks out what isn't picked," Mr. Baillie said. "You mud out what's ready to harvest."

The harvests in Yuma, AZ, and El Centro, CA, wrapped up a few weeks ago, and the brief interim harvest in Huron, CA, has perhaps two weeks left. With quality an issue for product from the San Joaquin Valley, combined with conditions in the Salinas Valley, there are "all the makings of a $20 market," for a range of commodities such as lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower, Mr. Baillie said. Conditions have made it harder for Salinas Valley companies to meet U.S. No. 1 standards. "Salinas might have mildew issues," Mr. Baillie predicted.

IFPA conference to address technical and management issues

WASHINGTON -- Expect to see an expanded conference program focusing on technical issues such as packaging and food safety, but also a new attention to business management at the April 26-29 International Fresh-cut Produce Association meeting in Baltimore.

While the conference program has been expanded, the buzz is likely to be about the newly announced plans to merge IFPA with the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association. Despite the consolidation of the two trade associations, the groups plan to continue the fresh-cut expo in years to come, as the groups agree it offers targeted information and networking opportunities to a different audience.

"These are two very different trade events," said IFPA President Jerry Welcome, adding that he expects the fresh- cut expo to grow in the years to come as a result of the planned merger.

With more than 20 sessions, IFPA has greatly expanded the conference offerings for Fresh Cut Expo 2006 to help fresh- cut produce firms with a myriad of technical issues facing the growing industry, as well as to learn about the latest trends in business management.

For example, the conference is hosting a session on managing a diverse workforce that can pose challenges to management, he said. Carlos Conejo of Multicultural Associates will lead the seminar on this topic. IFPA is hosting a three-session program, "The Keys to Successful Project Design," on what it takes to put together a first-class operation, whether a company is building a new plant or expanding, said Mr. Welcome. The group is bringing in new faces from the federal government to talk about food defense and food-safety issues, thanks to newly named Vice President of Technical Services David Gombas. "Gombas has really brought a whole new approach," Mr. Welcome said, by bringing in scientists who can discuss the latest research on fresh and processed produce.

Food defense experts Megan Coward of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Amy Barringer of the Food & Drug Administration and John Martin of the Department of Homeland Security will talk about the new agroterrorism initiative in the food defense seminar.

"With the government and media so keenly focused on safety issues related to fresh produce right now, we knew it was critical to place a strong emphasis on technical programming at Fresh-Cut Expo," said Dr. Gombas. "Anyone who is doing business in the fresh-cut produce sector should be concerned and educated about the latest technology, challenges and regulatory action our industry faces."

Taking advantage of Baltimore's proximity to leading experts, IFPA has planned visits to FDA headquarters and USDA's Agricultural Research Center so members can talk about safety regulations and the latest research. Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition Director Robert Brackett and former FDA Commissioner Les Crawford will speak to the group on how to effectively work with the regulatory agencies that directly affect fresh-cut produce companies.

Another session will help the industry explore ways to improve finished products by selecting new seed varieties. In the session, "Creating Tomorrow's Fresh-cuts," USDA's Bob Saftner and others plan to update IFPA conference attendees on emerging products in a new commitment to "go back in the food chain," said Mr. Welcome.

IFPA is reaching out to a leading food company, General Mills Corp., to hear about the "The Risks and Rewards of Packaging - A Consumer Products Company Perspective." Jay Gouliard will discuss General Mills' overall strategy and how a large food manufacturer works with retailers on food packaging.

The conference continues to reflect IFPA's growing need to be a global resource for the fresh-cut industry as it hosts sessions that allow European fresh-cut processors to discuss ways to take the lead in processing and product innovations.

At the Baltimore meeting, IFPA's board of directors will meet to tackle two issues influenced by the European marketplace. The board plans a discussion on whether the association should guide processors as they confront a growing trend among retailers and fast-food chains of demanding corporate responsibility polices from suppliers. Another issue is how to ensure consistency on issues, such as food-safety problems, that affect U.S. and European members.

More than 1,000 people have pre-registered for the Baltimore meeting, many of whom will be coming from Europe, said Mr. Welcome. "We've been trying to take advantage of the IFPA Europe group and bring people together to talk," he said.

Finally, two new commodity working groups will meet in Baltimore to discuss cutting-edge research. Melons and mushrooms will meet for the first time, along with the apple working group, to provide a forum for industry and researchers to talk about the latest trends.

Sambrailo to unveil Snap Flap container at IFPA

Sambrailo Packaging in Watsonville, CA, will introduce a new clamshell container line at the International Fresh-cut Produce Association convention and exposition in Baltimore that it believes will offer many benefits to users throughout the distribution chain.

Tony Cadiente, vice president of new business development/ marketing for Sambrailo, said that the new addition to the company's MIXIM line, known as Snap Flap, is unique for its one-piece construction. The advantages of that construction are numerous.

"The one-piece construction prevents the top from falling on the floor, so for restaurants there is less chance for contamination," said Mr. Cadiente. "Also, when the container is closed, the label acts as a safety seal, so you can tell if it has been opened."

Mr. Cadiente also said that the need for a shrink band, which is often used to hold two-piece containers together, is eliminated. Shrink bands are typically made of plastics that are not recyclable, so when using them on recyclable containers, "it sort of defeats the purpose."

But the key benefit of Snap Flap containers is the savings that can be realized by both shippers and receivers. For shippers, the one-piece Snap Flap containers can be filled on an automated line, thus drastically reducing the labor requirements, according to Mr. Cadiente, who added that receivers also may see savings in shipping costs, since Snap Flap containers allow for 36 cases to a pallet, compared to the typical 30 cases per pallet for other clamshells.

Snap Flap containers of various sizes are offered in both PET and PLA forms, according to Mr. Cadiente. "We've tested both quite a bit as far as forming and closing, and both perform quite well," he said.

"PLA is a little more rigid and not as flexible, but it seems to be more in demand for organic products because of its nature in being able to break down completely. And with the rising cost of oil, we may see more demand for the [corn-based] PLA containers in the future."

Mr. Cadiente, a 44-year Sambrailo employee, developed the line and will be on hand in Baltimore demonstrating it at the company's booth, which will feature a 28-foot automated packaging line running Snap Flap containers.

Gargiulo joins Sundia board of directors

San Francisco-based Sundia Corp. announced that Sunkist Growers Chief Executive Officer Jeff Gargiulo has joined the company as its chairman of the board of directors and advisors.

Brad Oberwager, CEO and founder of Sundia, told The Produce News that Mr. Gargiulo's role would be a "strategic" one. "Someone like Jeff doesn't have to put in 100 hours a week to have an impact," Mr. Oberwager said.

Mr. Gargiulo announced in January that he would not renew his contract with Sunkist and that he would leave the company in June after five years as president and chief executive officer.

Sundia Corp. -- devoted to providing premium watermelons on a year-round basis -- launched in 2004 and is the first company to mass produce watermelon juice. The privately held company's products include watermelon juice, fresh watermelon and watermelon concentrate.

Mr. Gargiulo will team with Mr. Oberwager in an attempt to build a global produce brand. Mr. Gargiulo said in a statement that Sundia's revolutionary approach to building a produce brand and the company's strategy of developing value-added produce products -- such as the Sundia line of watermelon juices -- made it appealing to join the young company.

"Sundia has accomplished in less than a year what other produce brands have taken decades to do," Mr. Gargiulo said, citing the company's ability to distribute its Sundia watermelon juices and capture 33 percent of the country's watermelon supply with the "Sundia" brand through strategic partnerships with the country's leading growers and distributors.

Sundia has become a category brand leader overnight. The company is expanding the watermelon market with its line of 100 percent juices while giving growers marketing muscle and continued autonomy of their businesses.

"It's a revolutionary approach to brand building and aggregating buying power - exactly what's needed for growers to compete in a global marketplace," Mr. Gargiulo said.

Mr. Oberwager said that he had been wooing Mr. Gargiulo for months. "Jeff brings decades of produce smarts to Sundia," he said. "With Sundia being so young and agile, and thus without encumbrances, Jeff can more quickly apply his years of know-how towards building Sundia into a major global produce brand in record time."

Mr. Oberwager said that Sundia is heavy on branding but light on expenditure.

"We don't take possession of fruit," Mr. Oberwager said. "We work with partners. We're simply the label."

Sundia has 10 to 12 partnerships in place, including with major watermelon players such as Timco Distributors and Borders Melon Co. Sundia has a major promotion slated for this summer whereby Timco will put a "Sundia" label on its watermelons - as in "Sundia" watermelons, distributed by Timco - and the purchasing consumer gets a Sundia watermelon and a free watermelon drink.

Mr. Gargiulo began his produce career with the Naples Fruit & Vegetable Co. in Naples, FL. He later founded Gargiulo Inc., which quickly became a top market-share leader in fresh tomatoes and a market-share leader in strawberries and raspberries. In 1997, Gargiulo Inc. was acquired by Monsanto, and Mr. Gargiulo served as president of the produce business unit for two years. In 2001, he was appointed president and CEO of Sunkist Growers Inc.

During his tenure at Sunkist, Mr. Gargiulo spearhead the reorganization of several Sunkist divisions and introduced new products to leverage the "Sunkist" brand, expanding Sunkist's distribution into Wal-Mart and Costco. He helped develop strategies for global sourcing and diversified products, including the introduction of Sunkist's pre-cut fruit program and its berry marketing program.

Mr. Gargiulo also has served as chairman of the Produce Marketing Association, during which he participated in the GATT and NAFTA trade negotiations. He is owner of Gargiulo Vineyards in Napa Valley, CA.