A severe freeze earlier this year in northern Mexico caused extensive damage to tomatoes industry-wide and, for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, resulted in “the lowest volume of tomatoes in April that we have had in probably 10 to 15 years” according to Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for A&W.
“After that freeze, it is really nice to get back into the tomato game,” he told The Produce News May 29. By that time, production had moved from the Culiacan area in mainland western Mexico over to Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. “In Baja, we are [now] really in full production, which is a great thing,” he said. But “we learned a lot of lessons from the freeze … that are going to make us better as a company.”
As A&W has evolved over the last several years from being a predominantly production-driven company “into more of a market-driven company,” Mr. Munger said, an increasing percentage of the company’s production is going directly to retail customers rather than going through repackers. Along with that, “we have taken on a lot of responsibilities” that have traditionally been assumed by middlemen. “When you take on that responsibility, you assume a lot of risk. We say we try to remove risk from our customers” by guaranteeing them that if they will rely on A&W to be their year-round tomato supplier, “we are not going to let [them] down.”
In an effort to be able to ensure that the company was capable of meeting that commitment, it developed production operations in “overlapping production regions” and has employed a wide assortment of growing technologies designed “to give us a high degree of confidence that we can take care of our customers’ orders 365 days a year,” he said.
But “when the freeze hit, it exposed … some fairly significant vulnerabilities” and caused the company to “do a lot of soul searching,” he said.
“We are fortunate that because [the freeze] was so widespread, our customers are forgiving.” But to help ensure that a similar thing does not happen again — and even though it was said to be a hundred-year freeze, it could occur again anytime — A&W now sees the need “to have redundancies on the redundancies.”
One program that would have helped was already in development but not yet in full production, and that is a new farming operation near La Paz, Mexico, at the southern tip of Baja, “which has a production cycle that overlaps the latter part of the Culiacan season and gets into production earlier than Vizcaino [Mexico],” farther up the peninsula, which had previously been A&W’s earliest production district in Baja. “If we had La Paz fully up and running this year, we would not have had such a severe supply gap in April,” Mr. Munger said.
In Vizcaino, A&W has historically had no winter production. However, this past winter, the company put a small amount of its shadehouse production in a different cycle, using “almost a greenhouse style” propagation technique, which resulted in “really consistent production through the winter. That really saved us” in April, allowing A&W to at least supply some tomatoes to foodservice customers. But “the retail customers really took a hit.” For next winter, “we are going to expand that program” to ensure a good supply of tomatoes from Baja “all winter long,” he said.
In addition, “we are looking right now for farming operations or partnerships in the Guadalajara area” of Mexico, and “we are also exploring some glasshouse technology,” he added. All of those should be in place for next winter, providing “additional redundancies that are going to assure us we will be able to emerge from a freeze in better shape than we did this year.”
A&W is also making several other changes in its operation this year. One is an increased efficiency at the packingsheds in Baja and mainland Mexico “to give us the flexibility to basically do any kind of pack our customers want.” The company is now doing 22 different SKUs on Roma tomatoes alone, whereas just 10 years ago, “we had one SKU on Roma tomatoes,” Mr. Munger said.
“If we can pack it right the first time” to customer specifications and go direct to the customer without re-handling, it will take costs out of the system and give the customer a fresher product, he said. That is “the final piece of our strategic plan of going customer direct” that needed to be put in place, and it is also “the most critical and hardest to do.”
A&W continues to grow its organic program, and “for our summer Baja deal, we will have organic Romas and organic grape tomatoes,” Mr. Munger said.
The company is also putting a stronger focus on its grape tomatoes, which it now refers to as snacking tomatoes. Production and packing have been consolidated to specific ranches and packinghouses in Baja and Culiacan, where they will be handled by “a team of experts,” he said. In partnership with Berry Genetics, A&W has “come up with some [phenomenal] tasting snacking tomato varieties, and we are rolling those out now in our farming operation” with more to be introduced this fall.