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OTA's Star Wars spoof alienates traditional producers

A clever new video crossing the Internet is using the "Star Wars" saga to promote organic produce, but not all fruit and vegetable growers are thrilled with the description of the Dark Side.

Last month, the Organic Trade Association released its sci-fi supermarket saga, Store Wars: The Organic Rebellion, which shows Cuke Skywalker, Chewbroccoli, Princess Lettuce and other rebels in a fight against the Dark Side of the Farm.

By spoofing a pop culture phenomenon like Star Wars, OTA hopes to attract a new generation of organic consumers, especially Gen Xers who grew up loving Luke, Leia and Han, and are now increasingly concerned about making healthy food choices for their families, said the association.

If you think about it, a battle is currently being waged over food in America and the direction agriculture will take in the future. We're asking in a light-hearted way for people to think about the choices they make at the grocery store, said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the OTA.

But other groups are not amused by the five-minute video.

The Produce Marketing Association, which represents organic and traditional produce growers and sellers, said the video is misleading and is a divisive way to promote organic produce.

Were for promoting the strengths of organic, but not at the expense of someone elses products, said PMAs Kathy Means. We think its irresponsible.

The problem, said PMA, is that the video leaves the impression that theres a lot of irradiated and bioengineered produce on the market, and that growers are injecting fresh produce with chemicals. The Dark Side of the Farm, according to the Grocery Store Wars flick, is pollution and pesticides that have ruthlessly claimed the market. The food puppets, such as Obi Wan Cannoli, discuss how consumers are seduced into buying fruits and vegetables supported by artificially reduced prices.

First of all, the video should be seen as a spoof, said OTAs Barbara Haumann. It should not be taken literally. We are not attacking conventional produce.

But she said that consumers should be made aware of some conventional agricultural practices, such as pesticide use, and that one way to support organic is to buy organic.

OTA had hoped that the live-action food puppets would prompt more people to learn about organic products, and that seems to be happening. OTA has recorded 4 million hits on the video so far, and the number of visitors to the trade groups web site has doubled since May. Educators from around the world also have asked to use it in their school curriculum, said Ms. Haumann. Store Wars is the brainchild of Free Range Studios, makers of the 2003 satire on the meat industry called The Meatrix, another on-line film that recorded 10 million viewers.

To view the Store Wars film, go to www.storewars.org.

Arkansas tomato industry thriving in post-auction era

Arkansas tomatoes have long been considered an important source for both retailers and foodservice operators in North America during the summer months. But the industry there has enjoyed particularly strong growth and momentum since the cash auction system it previously operated under ended a few years ago, according to two of the leading players in the deal.

"When there was a cash auction system in Arkansas, we did not have the advantage of direct contact with growers," said Gary Margolis, president of Boca Raton, FL-based Gem Tomato Sales, which also has seasonal offices in Hamburg, AR, and in Benton Harbor, MI. The auction system is often considered the purest form of economics because the product goes to the highest bidder. But that is not always the best customer  the one that you want to build a solid relationship with for the long term. Growers got cash on the spot, which was advantageous, but the downsides often outweighed the good.

Auctions, Mr. Margolis explained, make promotional efforts difficult because product availability is not known in advance. Without advanced supply information, customers cannot commit. Nor can relationships between growers and wholesalers, distributors, retailers and/or foodservice operators develop into the sound ongoing partnerships that can lead to successes. The lack of communication left too much of a gray area between the marketing arm and the growers. People simply nodded their heads, did the deal and walked away.

Without auctions, people can work together better, said Mr. Margolis. It is a completely different type of operation today, and one that we feel is much improved.

Brooks Lisenbey, sales manager for Arkansas Tomato Shippers LLC, headquartered Hermitage, AR, with seasonal offices in Rio Rico, AZ, agreed with Mr. Margolis. He said that his was one of the last companies to do business on the auction when it ended four years ago.

It just wasn't the proper way to market tomatoes, he said. It was very hard to project prices. Today when a chain retailer asks me for a price 30, 60 or 90 days out, we can provide that information because we own the product in advance. But under the auction system, you never knew what you would need or when, or what the prices would be from day to day.

Arkansas Tomato Shippers markets about 30 percent of its product ahead of time, so it is important that it has the needed information in advance. Mr. Lisenbey added that auctions do not allow for proactive selling, which is how retailers and foodservice operations are set up to buy product today.

Customers also need custom packs today, and everyone seems to have their own individual needs, Mr. Lisenbey said. This aspect could not be coordinated successfully with the auction system. Also, the inspection process we go through today to ensure food safety was not benefited by auctions.

Mr. Margolis had an early introduction into the Arkansas tomato industry. His uncle was Sy Katz, previous owner of Sy Katz Produce and a highly respected industry leader. That company was purchased by Mr. Margolis brother, Owen Margolis, several years ago, and it is now operated from its Boone, NC, headquarters. Mr. Katz died a few years ago.

My uncle worked the Arkansas deal as far back as the 1960s, said Mr. Margolis. It was always known as a prime area for growing great eating tomatoes. While it suffered a few inconsistencies over the years, the issues were worked out over time. Today it is sophisticated and it offers highly advanced shipping and packing processes. It has evolved into a truly exceptional shipping point.

Mr. Margolis began Gem Tomato Sales 23 years ago in Florida, with attention on vine-ripe product. At the time, most areas were harvesting green tomatoes, but many customers had begun to recognize the better flavor of vine-ripe product. Over the years, the company evolved into a vine-ripe specialty house that handles all varieties. It partners with about a dozen growers in Florida, Arkansas and Michigan, but each is dedicated to one specific tomato category.

We focus on homegrown tomatoes for spring and summer deals, said Mr. Margolis. It enables us to provide high-quality product in volumes that we can promote. We have built a strong program in this window because our customers are kept supplied throughout the entire growing season.

Mr. Margolis added that the consumer demand of homegrown is driven by todays aggressive health trends, and that seasonal products, which exemplify high nutrition, are especially in high demand.

Gem Tomato Sales ships product under several brand names, with two dominant labels. Ashleys Best is used for product supplied by Triple M Farms in Hamburg, AR, and Summertime Flavor is the label used for product from Michigan.

We are the exclusive sales agent for Triple M, said Mr. Margolis. The company is owned by James Meeks and Wendell Moffatt. They are very progressive farmers who, using their own financing, grow on 150 acres. They are doing an exceptional job, and they are a prime example of the best of what Arkansas growers produce today.

Arkansas Tomato Shippers was founded by Charlie Searcy in 1997. He remains with the company today as its managing member. Mr. Lisenbey said that during the months of June and July, the company is a grower-shipper. From August through May, it procures a full line of product from Nogales, AZ. It also works a California deal that includes field and hothouse product from August through December. In Arkansas, the firm operates from a state-of-the-art regional packing facility.

In Arkansas, we deal in Romas, rounds and grape tomatoes, said Mr. Lisenbey. About 30 percent of our business is in hothouse product out of Mexico. Besides tomatoes, we also handle hothouse and field-grown cucumbers, and sweet peppers from Mexico. The company ships its product under the Candy Brand, Jacks Brand and Pablo Brand labels, and it distributes from Texas northward, North Carolina northward, some areas of California and into Canada.

We expect an outstanding crop out of Arkansas this season, said Mr. Lisenbey. The few bins we pulled early indicate that we have about 95 percent U.S. No. 1 grade tomatoes this year, due primarily to the great growing season we have had. The cool and wet spring growers in the East have experienced this year will likely add to what we anticipate will be good marketing opportunities coming out of Arkansas in the coming couple of months. Our volumes are up by about 15 percent over last year, which will also add to our marketing abilities.

Mr. Margolis agreed that it should be a great season for Arkansas tomatoes.

Its a short season, running from approximately June 15 through July 15-20, he said. But the great crop conditions this year should make it a really good season. We are seeing extremely high-quality product and larger-than-normal volume yields this year.

PMA rolls out data standardization product

MONTEREY, CA  In an effort to move the produce industry forward through technology, the Produce Marketing Association announced the launch of ASAP: Produce at its RFID Fresh Produce Academy & Expo held here June 2.

ASAP: Produce is a web-based application that has 13 different produce attributes such as commodity, variety group, variety, refinement and grade, whereby produce suppliers and retailers can access standard attributes and their values for their proprietary applications. ASAP, which stands for A Standardized Attributes Product, is being adopted by major supply chain management software and service providers. Users of ASAP will be able to speak the same data language for grading and describing produce and cross-referencing a buyer number to a seller number.

Fresh produce lacks unique product identification. Non-produce packages have a UPC code that ties an item to a UPC number. Fresh produce, on the other hand, carries a PLU number  an identifying number that doesn't tie to the grower and doesnt identify the variety of the commodity.

"Theres no bar code on Red Delicious apples," said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, adding that the identifying information is on the PLU codes that cashiers can type in. With a unique ID by a shipper, the buyer doesnt have the specificity needed.

Mr. Silbermann said that looking out five years from today, the monetary value of the ASAP system to the industry would be hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of savings and enhanced efficiencies.

Both Mr. Silbermann and Gary Fleming, PMAs vice president of industry technology and standards, said that industry initiatives are moving toward a synchronicity and symbiosis between radio frequency identification, traceability, e-commerce and data synchronization. In response, last August PMA decided that industry technology standards were paramount, and the association has since doubled its technology staff to four people from two and doubled the technology budget to more than $500,000, Mr. Silbermann said.

Mr. Fleming said that there are bad data in the system  which can include any bar codes and e-commerce  that must be addressed. If we dont fix the data, we defeat the automation process, Mr. Fleming said. Shipments, invoices, inventory  it affects every area.

Mr. Fleming said that e-commerce, bar codes and RFID all would pull from the same data. As such, the gap will get exponentially bigger between companies keeping pace with technology and those that are not, he said.

According to Mr. Fleming, standardized information is key for members of the produce and floral industries to accurately, efficiently and in an automated fashion match up a buyers SKU number with a sellers item number. Adoption of ASAP is the needed standardization that enables trading partners to begin synchronizing their data and avoid using bad data that can result in mis-shipments, invoice deductions, strained customer relations and misalignment of data, he said.

As a standard attributes database, ASAP: Produce facilitates the marketing, selling and purchasing of produce at the case and pallet levels. These attributes are the precursor to database synchronization that will lead to the implementation of RFID and adherence to traceability guidelines. PMA anticipates releasing ASAP: Floral later this summer to provide similar benefits for the floral industry.

The produce supply chain must trace product, investigate and incorporate RFID technology, use the Global Data Synchronization Network, apply category management concepts, and efficiently cross-reference proprietary inventory numbers. To do this, data synchronization must be used and adapted to proprietary systems. ASAP is the first step in this process.

Food Link Online and iTrade Network  leading retailers and suppliers  are the first to subscribe to PMAs data standardization effort and each played a role in the creation of the ASAP network.

Joe Buchanan, vice president of sales and marketing for Food Link Online, said that Food Link built the prototype for PMAs ASAP: Produce. The system can eliminate code-matching problems between the buyers and sellers, he said, adding that ASAP: Produce offers the tools to do efficient cleansing of an internal catalog.

Food Link has a catalog available on-line that is PMA-compliant; Food Link can host and maintain catalogs for customers, Mr. Buchanan said.

In a PMA press release, Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of perishables for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., praised ASAP: Produce and said that data synchronization has been identified as the critical bridge to allowing both traceability and RFID to cross into the industry mainstream.

In that same PMA press release, Gary Gionette, vice president of produce/floral for Supervalu Inc., said, As a partner with PMA in developing this product, Supervalu testing results showed a 50 percent reduction in our purchase ordering process costs.

Mr. Silbermann said that PMA would offer this first version of ASAP: Produce to customers for a $500 annual fee. There is a $50 renewal fee for access to updates after the first year.

The on-line subscription service launched the week of June 13. Customers can view it on-line or download it to a server, Mr. Silbermann said, adding that ASAP is data you integrate into your system.

Oppenheimer promotes two

The Oppenheimer Group, based in Vancouver, BC, announced two key promotions, effective May 2.

David Smith, sales manager of Oppenheimer's Los Angeles office and executive director of its greenhouse category, was named vice president of sales and marketing for categories. Sales representative Eric Coty has been promoted to Los Angeles sales manager.

In his newly created role, Mr. Smiths primary responsibility is to oversee the alignment of Oppenheimers category approach with its overall sales and marketing strategies.

"Experience developing programs with our global growers, combined with his 16 years spent selling and marketing Oppenheimer products, gives David unique strategic insights to both aspects of our business," said John Anderson, chairman, president and CEO of Oppenheimer. David will help connect the planning efforts of our category directors and our sales team. His analysis and guidance will help assure our growers programs are as consistent as possible with the demands of the market.

Mr. Smith joined Oppenheimer in 1989 and has held various sales and category management roles. He helped develop the companys greenhouse business and solidify its position as a greenhouse category leader, according to Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Smith holds a bachelor of science degree in agri-business with a minor in agri-marketing from California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo, and earned his MBA from Azusa Pacific University in Glendora, CA.

With a degree in agriculture and managerial economics from U.C. Davis, Mr. Coty joined Oppenheimer in 1993 as an intern in its operations and quality control department. In 1997, he became a member of the Los Angeles sales team, where he quickly emerged as a leader and took on increasing responsibilities, Mr. Anderson said.

In addition to his sales management duties, Mr. Coty oversees Oppenheimers Las Vegas tomato deal, and coordinates its Tottori 20th Century pear and B.C. Tree Fruits business for the western United States.

Organic icon to bolster Stemilt Growers' efforts

WENATCHEE, WA -- Stemilt Growers Inc. has selected organic fruit grower and packer Harold Ostenson as the newest member of its horticultural staff and part of the Stemilt team that focuses on organic tree fruit cultivation, packing and post-harvest practices.

Mr. Ostenson, who started at Stemilt on May 23, has been a tree fruit grower for 30 years, with the last 20 focused on organic production and packing. Most of his fruit-growing acreage is located in the Columbia Basin, where he raises apples, pears, cherries, stone fruits and berries.

Considered by many to be an authority on the organic tree fruit industry in Washington, Mr. Ostenson has spoken at several conventions and conferences in recent years about growing, packaging and marketing organics. He's been quoted in a number of publications regarding his philosophies about the business, and he's contributed or led research efforts on controlling fruit pests and improving handling practices for organics.

Mr. Ostenson said he wasnt formally educated in fruit production or raising crops organically, but he has always had a strong science background. His father was a biology professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, the city where Mr. Ostenson was raised. He became interested in growing fruit in the middle 1970s and decided eastern Washington was the best place to plant orchards.

Mr. Ostenson began as a conventional fruit grower and started transitioning his orchards to organic in the late 1970s. At that time there were "virtually no pest controls or other tools available for organic fruit production," he said. That fact made it a huge challenge to go organic. It took until the late 1980s for him to convert all of his orchards to organic.

In 1997, he built an all-organic packinghouse in George, WA, to pack his fruit. In 1998, Mr. Ostenson established a partnership that enabled him to open his facility to pack for other organic growers. The facility handled approximately 500,000 boxes of apples from the 2004 crop, along with cherries, apricots and other fruits for 30 outside growers. He plans to lease out the facility, although he believes that some of his former growers may also now bring fruit to Stemilt.

Mr. Ostenson said that he joined Stemilt because of the companys current reputation and role in the organic industry, along with its vision for the future. Stemilts Chelan Falls facility is the largest organics-only tree fruit packing facility in the nation. Stemilt bought the facility in 2003 and revamped the equipment and systems to take advantage of the newest and best organic packing technology. Last season, Stemilt shipped approximately 1 million 40-pound cartons of organic apples, 100,000 boxes of organic pears and 75,000 boxes of organic cherries.

In addition, Stemilt has a four-member sales group dedicated to organics, a 30-member sales team focused on conventional fruit sales, and a nine-member marketing staff providing data analysis, promotions and point-of-sale to support Stemilts organic business. Previously, Mr. Ostenson relied on several different sales desks to market the fruit he packed.

"Stemilt is at the forefront on organics and they want to stay there, he said. "Theyre looking down the road and they want to do new and innovative things that support the sustainability of the organic grower.