California lettuce co-op generating interest

A substantial number of Salinas Valley lettuce shippers were expected to attend an informational meeting Thursday, Jan. 5 concerning the possibility of joining the Central California Lettuce Producers Cooperative.

The co-op has a long and storied history, which includes court challenges and victories, periods of both high and low membership, and efforts to institute floor pricing. For the past decade, membership in the producers co-op has waned. The co-op is a legal entity by virtue of the Capper- Volstead Act, which was passed in 1922 to exempt agricultural producers from federal antitrust laws.

For the past 10 years, and throughout the history of the co-op, members have met to discuss the marketing of the lettuce crop on a daily basis.

Typically, the producer members meet face-to-face once a week and by phone three times a day to discuss the marketing of the crop. By law, each member company of the co-op must have a vested interested in the crop itself. The current chairman of the board of the co-op is Sig Christierson of Major Farms, a longtime Salinas Valley lettuce grower who produces for co-op member NewStar Fresh Foods LLC in Salinas. In early December, Mr. Christierson, along with NewStar CEO David Eldredge and David Gill of Rio Farms and Growers Express, sent an open letter to the industry suggesting that the co-op was a tool that the lettuce industry could once again use to potentially increase the profitability of producing lettuce.

The lettuce market has been depressed for many months, with growers apparently selling their crop for prices below production costs on a daily basis.

"We thought maybe there was something we could do to increase membership" and lead to a better marketing situation, Mr. Christierson told The Produce News Wednesday, Jan. 4.

The first informational meeting was held in mid-December and had an overflow crowd.

The meeting scheduled for Jan. 5 was to include the introduction of a facilitator, as well as a presentation by Charlie Mathews Jr., who runs the California Citrus Growers Association, which is a grower co-op.

"At this point we are just getting together and trying to figure out what people are willing to do," said Mr. Christierson.

Clearly the aim of the co-op is to increase membership, and so the current leadership is looking for common ground that will bring potential members back to the group.

In the early 1990s, he said that membership was stronger but the idea of floor pricing ended up breaking up the group and reducing membership. Mr. Christierson said that all ideas are "still on the table," but he indicated that information gathering and sharing are probably the areas with the most universal support.

Currently, the co-op represents less than a third of production with most observers believing that it needs to have more than 50 percent of the daily volume to influence the market.

After the Jan. 5 meeting, Mr. Christierson expects there to be additional meetings with the facilitator and various producers to determine what it will take to increase membership.

At the same time that this producers co-op is looking for new members, Mr. Christierson said that there has also been interest in forming a new grower co-op. Under the umbrella of a grower-co-op, members could collectively try to influence their shippers as well as pool their buying resources and discuss concepts such as planting schedules.

The Major Farms executive said that growers have had one meeting and will soon be meeting again, but the more pressing matter is resurrecting interest in the already- established shipper-oriented co-op.

Bon Campo introduces 'Trattoria' line of specialties

Bon Campo announced the launch of Trattoria, a new line of specialties, featuring renowned chef Mathieu Frey who has created easy-to-follow recipes for normally hard-to-sell items like baby chokes, fennel, baby bok choy, baby eggplant and leeks.

In the Bon Campo tradition, the new Trattoria line will create sales by educating the American consumer with "real recipes for real people."

Bon Campo's philosophy has always been to create a line that is narrow and deep with generally fewer products than its competitors.

"We have hired a celebrated European chef who has created simple yet delicious recipes for the types of produce that are not typical to most Americans," said Merex founder Dave Blumberg. "Chef Mathieu Frey's approach is to get more Americans over their 'fear factor' about vegetables they don't normally use by creating recipes so simple and tasty they become a regular feature at the dinner table."

Chef Frey is a native of France and has cooked for Presidents Clinton and Bush as director of special events for New York's famed Daniel Boulud. He also is former sous chef of New York's Essex House Hotel.

"I chose these items to start because while I see them everywhere, they are not always the first choice for Americans. I believe my recipes will help move these items off the shelves," said Chef Frey.

Merex Corp. is backing its new line with a promotional campaign that will involve TV and store appearances for Chef Frey and tasting opportunities at the retail level. Chef Frey recently appeared on cooking shows in the New York area to promote the Trattoria line in the Stew Leonard stores in those areas. His passion for food is easily identifiable in his recipes that are simple yet delicious.

California pilot programs hail benefits of expanding WIC

WASHINGTON -- As the federal government considers taking the program nationwide, congressional staffers packed into a U.S. Capitol room Dec. 6 to hear the experiences of the only two pilot programs that have allowed low-income women and children to use vouchers to purchase fresh produce in neighborhood stores.

After 30 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected this month to propose that participants of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children will be able to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at local stores with government-issued vouchers. This comes on the heels of an April 2005 report that urged USDA to include fresh fruits and vegetables in a voucher system for WIC recipients, which include pregnant and postpartum women and children up to five years old. With Congress likely to play a role in overseeing the program, United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association and the National WIC Association organized the briefing to share the success stories of the two California pilot programs -- one in urban South Central Los Angeles and the other in rural Calaveras County.

"The vouchers made it possible for WIC participants to buy a wide variety of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables," said Dr. Dena Herman of the UCLA School of Public Health, who presented the results of the South Central Los Angeles study. It was important that at-risk moms could choose the fruits and vegetables they wanted to buy with the vouchers, she said. Even after the experiment ended, women kept asking for the vouchers, she said.

Two hundred WIC participants were given a $10 voucher per week to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables for six months. Under the pilot, Food4Less supermarkets developed the vouchers, trained cashiers and tracked redemption rates. Both pilot programs revealved that the redemption rate for vouchers was more than 80 percent, an unusually high rate for WIC vouchers.

"Although the maximum value of the project to Food4Less was $44,000 over one year, we felt it was important to get these WIC participants into our produce departments," the store's Tim Mulhall wrote in a Dec. 2 letter. Mr. Mulhall said that the vouchers posed no problems for employees and allowed WIC moms to try new fruits and vegetables.

In rural Calaveras County, another retailer touted the benefits of participating in the other pilot program, now in its fifth year. Save Mart Supermarket's Sharon Blakely said that the stores experienced no drawbacks in handling the vouchers. The program demanded no extra training for clerks who were already proficient in managing vouchers, she said.

Some programs allow women to obtain additional coupons that can be used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers' markets. But Ms. Blakely said that vouchers redeemable at supermarkets offer added convenience for these moms along with year-around availability.

The California Grocers Association hailed the program as a great benefit to WIC recipients and said that it could be easily funded by slightly reducing the amount of juice and/ or milk in the current WIC package.

"From an administrative standpoint, this fresh produce plan would easily be implemented by WIC branches and WIC vendors throughout the nation," CGA President Peter Larkin wrote in a Nov. 29 letter in support of the program.

As a result of the pilot program, which is run on $50,000 a year from cigarette taxes, independent stores that sold few fresh items have now doubled their produce inventory, said Shirlee Runnings of the Human Resources Council WIC program. With the $5 vouchers, nearly 700 WIC moms and children are increasing their fruit and vegetable intake and participants are extremely happy with the program, she said.

"I feel WIC needs to walk the walk," she said. "We're encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables, and now it's time to give them the tools to do it."

Women who qualify for WIC are provided with nutritional education, including 5 A Day material and tips on recipes and price shopping.

As a result of the six-month pilot, Dr. Herman said that women increased their produce intake, changed eating habits and maintained the increase six months after the experiment ended.

New York began a three-month experiment in January, the only other pilot to offer WIC moms fresh fruits and vegetables, said Rev. Douglas Greenaway, who is director of the National WIC Association.

For now, all eyes will be on the USDA proposal due out in late January and followed by a 90-day public comment period. The issue is a top agenda item for United as United President Tom Stenzel said he's been meeting with USDA staff in recent days on the proposal.

Progressive Marketing Group hires Steve Long for Quincy, WA, office

Following several years of potato and onion inspection and buying duties for a major retail operation in Los Angeles, Steve Long has joined Progressive Marketing Group as its sales manager at Jones Produce in Quincy, WA.

Progressive President Jim Leimkuhler told The Produce News Jan. 4 that Mr. Long's first day in the Quincy office was Jan. 3, and the company head said, "We think by adding Steve and bringing his retail experience, it's a good move for us and the industry."

Mr. Long had left his six-year position with Kroger-Wesco Foods in November and said Jan. 4 that he and his family had decided to relocate to the Pacific Northwest prior to his move to Progressive.

"Steve wanted to stay in produce, and when we found out he left Kroger, we talked to him and hired him," Mr. Leimkuhler said.

Progressive Marketing Group handles sales for Jones Produce, a major Washington potato and onion grower- shipper. Working sales with Mr. Long in the Quincy office is John Williams, and Marvin Vietz handles sales out of both the Quincy and Walla Walla offices. Scott Williams handles transportation for the operation.

Mr. Long and his wife, Abby, are parents of an eight-month- old daughter, Hallie, and the new sales manager said that he and his family were looking forward to the lifestyle changes they'll experience in their Wenatchee home.

"I am also looking forward to the day-to-day challenges in sales," Mr. Long said. "It's a whole new set of opportunities."

C-Brand Tropicals granted exclusive distributorship of Ugli fruit in North America

Ugli, the exotic tangelo from Jamaica, is predicted to attain "celebrity status" in the nation's produce departments as it reaches new heights through the aid of a new marketing alliance.

Trout Hall Ltd. of Jamaica, the sole suppliers of Ugli, and Cabel Hall Citrus Ltd., the trademark owner, have announced the appointment of C-Brand Tropicals Inc. in Goulds, FL, as the exclusive agents for the sales, distribution and marketing of the "Ugli" brand of tangelos in North America. Starting with the new season's kickoff in December, the increasing presence of this eye-catching, distinctive fruit is guaranteed to generate widespread excitement in supermarkets.

"New promotional activity will concentrate heavily on in- store sampling to create more awareness of this great tasting, zipper-skinned, seedless citrus fruit -- that looks like an ugly grapefruit," Bill Schaefer, president of C-Brand Tropicals, said in a statement.

The Ugli tangelo is a variety of citrus fruit grown exclusively in Jamaica and exported to markets all over the world.

"It was discovered growing wild in Jamaica over 70 years ago," said Gordon Sharp, chairman of Trout Hall Ltd. "And it has been developed by the family of owners into the commercial variety now in production in Jamaica. Its parentage combines the best characteristics of the tangerine, grapefruit and Seville orange."

"When buying Ugli fruit, do not be misled by appearances. You will love their sweet, tangy flavor," said Peter Leifermann of C-Brand Tropicals. "They are easy to peel and may be eaten like a tangerine, or they may be cut in half and eaten like a grapefruit. They are remarkably juicy and squeeze easily for deliciously refreshing drinks."

Ugli tangelos come in a wide range of sizes, usually varying in diameter from four inches to six inches. They also vary in color from green to greenish-yellow, to yellow, and some even orange.

"They are only harvested and sent to market after they have ripened on the tree, so what is found in the store is always ripe fruit, even though the skin may be green," added Mr. Sharp. "The inside is always orange to deep- orange in color."

In addition to Ugli fruit, C-Brand Tropicals offers a variety of tropical produce from domestic, South American and Caribbean sources.

"We have a vested interest in the product and the grower, and a vested interest in the buyer," said Mr. Schaefer. "Our objective is long-term relationships on both sides of the equation. That translates to superior, personalized service you can count on - every time."