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Organics fuel Wholesum Harvest’s mango growth

The Crisantes family has long been a player in the production of Mexican produce for U.S. consumption, and for the past decade, it has focused its attention on the organic sector. And over the last several years, that has included a significant increase in its offerings of organic mangos.

Less than a year ago, the company (formerly Cris-P Produce) launched its new company name and rebranded itself under the Wholesum Family Farms moniker and the “Wholesum Harvest” brand. But it still is a third-generation family farm that has grown safe, wholesome food for 80 years. The family pioneer, Miguel Crisantes Gatzionis, migrated from Greece to Mexico in the 1920s and began farming in Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1930.

Don Miguel’s son, Theojary Crisantes, today oversees the operation but has passed the day-to-day management of the operation to his three sons: Theojary, Ricardo and Adrian. Theojary and Adrian are involved in the production in Mexico while Ricardo runs the sales operation in Nogales, AZ.

“My father is still very much involved,” said Ricardo. “But not so much in the day-to-day operations. He spends his time on long-range planning and projects.”

But Ricardo is very quick to credit his father for the transition to organic production that had its roots in the 1960s but began in earnest in the 1980s. “My father is an agronomist. He went to U.C. Davis in the 1960s and was very much influenced by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. He thought about that for many years and always believed that farmers should farm in the most sustainable way.” (The book railed against many of the farming practices of the day and advocated less dependence on pesticides.)

Ricardo said that his father’s proactive effort to grow organically began in earnest after taking a trip to Spain and Holland in the 1980s and witnessing the advances in greenhouse production that growers in those countries were championing.

He started with some rudimentary greenhouses, and by the early 1990s, Theojary Crisantes had organic production but not much of a market for it. Over the next decade, the family increased its organic production, and the market began to grow, too. “It’s not for everybody,” Ricardo said. “You have to take a leap of faith that you will be able to sell your crop.”

But his father was committed to the concept, and his philosophy of how to grow had evolved over the years to the point that growing organically was what he wanted to do. And he has passed that passion on to his sons. “My brother Adrian can tell you that from the time he was very young, he knew he wanted to be a grower on a farm. He was born with a green thumb. He was always looking at plants and trying to determine how a crop developed. He has that same zeal as my father.”

Today, the company’s organic cucumber and tomato deals are thriving — and they have been for the past decade. Ricardo said that the marketing of organics caught up with the company’s production, and now there is a good balance between demand and supply.

The foray into organic mangos came eight years ago in a small way. That first year, the company shipped about seven loads. “At the time, we decided that a mango deal would be a good fit for us. Mangos can ride with tomatoes and cucumbers (in a truck to destination), and so it made sense to us to add them to our product line.”

Ricardo said that the first production came from a grower that had transitioned his crop to organic production and was looking for an organic marketing specialist. A mutual friend introduced him to the Crisantes family, and the firm in turn shipped its first organic mangos. The company’s production sources grew in a similar manner over the next several years. Today, Wholesum Harvest’s Mexican mango production begins in the southern state of Oaxaca in late February and then moves to Nayarit and northern Sinaloa. In addition, the company will be representing a Peruvian organic cooperative this year. “We almost have a year-round program with Oaxaca starting in late February and going into May, and then we transition into Nayarit for May and June. Our northern Sinaloa production goes from July through September, and we will pull from Peru in December and January.”

This year, the company expects to ship about 120 loads of mangos. Ricardo Crisantes said that organic mangos have their own supply and demand portfolio, but they do follow the marketing curves of a conventional mango. “When you are marketing organic mangos, there are a number of factors that you have to consider. You have to consider the supply of organic mangos, but you also have to consider the supply and price of conventional mangos. Even if I am the only guy with organic mangos, I can’t just set the price at whatever I want.”

He said that his customers, which are largely health and natural food stores, still carry conventional mangos if the price differential is too great.

Anthony Totta, Wholesum Harvest’s marketing consultant, said that the company’s new name, which was launched at the October 2010 Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit convention, was designed to better communicate the value proposition that the firm offers. The company wants its name to denote the focus it has put on producing fruits and vegetables in the most wholesome way. Mr. Totta directs customers and consumers to the firm’s web site to deliver the message.

“We have an aggressive B to B (business to business) and B to C (business to consumer) social media program,” he added. With the use of Twitter and Facebook, Mr. Totta said that the social media effort is designed to be a two-way communication tool with consumers and customers.