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Eclipse Berry finds niche with grape tomatoes

Eclipse Berry Farm is not a misnomer. The Southern California grower-shipper, with its farm in Ventura County and its sales office in Los Angeles, is primarily a strawberry operation.

“That makes up 90 or 95 percent of our business,” says Rick Hearst, longtime salesperson for the company. “But our grape tomato program is a nice little deal for us.” And it’s on the rise.

Mr. Hearst explained that fellow salesperson Stuart Gilfenbain, son of the owner, Norman Gilfenbain, “got a Florida grape tomato deal many years ago, and that got us started.”

To add to their Florida deal and give them a longer sales season, Eclipse decided to plant their own grape tomato acreage in Oxnard. The Oxnard deal begins in July and goes into November, so it dovetailed with the winter deal out of Florida and gives the company production for about nine months. Eclipse no longer sells the Florida deal, but the company has added a Mexican deal for this upcoming winter and will again have grape tomatoes for at least nine months. “That will help us fill our customers’ needs throughout the winter,” said Mr. Hearst.

Though it would seem to be a disadvantage that Eclipse is a supplier of only grape tomatoes while competitors offer multiple tomato varieties, Mr. Hearst said it is not. “It seems to work out pretty well,” he said. “There are several shippers in the area that have Romas, heirloom tomatoes or rounds, so it works out for the customer.”

He indicated that a customer can fill all of their tomato needs in the same area with just a couple of stops, and that doesn’t seem to present a problem. “We tried growing a couple of other varieties in the past, but we found that our niche is the grape tomato. That’s what we do best,” Mr. Hearst said.

The company sells its grape tomatoes to both wholesalers and retailers nationwide, but Mr. Hearst said that East Coast retailers seem to sell a lot more in that category.

Grape tomatoes have dominated the small tomato category in recent years, causing cherry tomatoes to take a back seat. “On the East Coast, they are very popular and the retailers do a great job of merchandising them.”

Eclipse Berry Farm or its predecessor company, Cal Fruit, has been around since 1963. Under the Cal Fruit name, the company augmented its grower-shipper operation with a house on the Los Angeles wholesale market for many years. The terminal market facility was closed years ago, and the company has concentrated its effort on the grower-shipper end ever since.

The elder Mr. Gilfenbain, who is now in his early 80s, continues to run the company. He goes into the Los Angeles office every day and visits the Ventura County farm often. “He’s involved in everything but sales, and he still even gets involved in that if we have a problem,” said Mr. Hearst.