Jimmy Bassetti, president of the Edinburg, TX-based company, hails from Vineland, NJ — the hotbed of the Garden State’s produce district. Having grown up in a produce family, he draws on the rich experience he gained working at both family-owned and non-family-owned operations.
“I cut my teeth at John Ordille Inc. working with Jack Ordille, who was one of my father’s close friends,” said Mr. Bassetti. “He ran a co-op, and I was a loader there. After that, I went to Landisville Fruit Growers, where I worked for Bucky Bannano. He was a great teacher, and I learned a lot about produce management and packing under him.”
Following that, Mr. Bassetti joined the family produce brokerage, R&B Produce, headed by his father, Jim “The Bear” Bassetti, whom he referred to as “the best teacher I ever had. He could read markets like no one else, and he taught me the meaning of quality.”
Mr. Bassetti said that it was his father’s idea for him to work for others before joining the family business in order to gain familiarity with different aspects of the produce industry.
Mr. Bassetti and his wife, Diane, left their familiar surroundings in New Jersey in 1984 and headed to Texas to start a new chapter of their lives. For their first two years, they operated a buying brokerage that was an extension of the New Jersey operation.
But Mr. Bassetti saw more potential as a grower-shipper, and with his father’s blessing he formed J&D Produce, which borrows the first initials from him and his wife.
His first move was to purchase a packing facility owned by J.D. Lowe Jr. Co. Inc., which was known for its well-respected “High-Lowe” brand of watermelons. The watermelon packinghouse was converted into a greens facility, and subsequent additions and renovations occurred in the ensuing years to add more technology and cold storage.
Today, the Bassettis have an advanced operation that has branched beyond the mixed greens they first handled and into personal watermelons and its proprietary “HoneySweet” onions.
The firm, which this fall is celebrating its 25th anniversary in business, has operations in key locations in order to take advantage of the optimal growing conditions needed to offer its signature “HoneySweet” onion on a year-round basis.
“We decided to branch off into onions because I saw huge potential with that commodity,” Mr. Bassetti said. “I’ve always liked sweet onions, and that was a commodity that I felt we could develop into a 12-month program.”
For its “HoneySweet” onion program, Mr. Bassetti said, “We chase the sun to maintain the right growing conditions,” explaining that the company has operations in four distinct growing regions that enable it to make the variety available on a year-round basis.
In a market full of sweet onions, the “HoneySweet” stands out, as the variety has a consistently low pyruvate level of between 2 and 2.5, said Mr. Bassetti.
“Eighty percent of the sweet onions on the market have a pyruvate level of 4 and above,” said Mr. Bassetti. “In Vidalia, 80 percent of production is 4 and below. They do a much better job than many other regions.”
Mr. Bassetti said that J&D continues to work to improve its “HoneySweet” onions by scrutinizing and advancing the variety through selection and breeding methods to achieve the desired criteria including shape, flavor, disease resistance and single centers.
"Prior to this season, seed availability was limited, but this year’s seed crop was successful with pungency levels consistently averaging 2, which will allow us to go after more customers," said Mr. Bassetti.
Greens and personal watermelons also play a big role in the product line at J&D Produce, and like its “HoneySweet” onions, those items are labeled under the company’s “Little Bear” brand.
For greens, the firm offers a list of more than 25 items, including parsley, cilantro, swiss chard, dandelion greens and kohlrabi. Product is grown at company-owned facilities in Texas (from November to April) and New Jersey (from April to November).
Personal watermelons are as popular as ever, according to Mr. Bassetti, who added that they continue to be on an upward trend.
“We feel that it definitely has a niche in the industry, as there always will be consumers who want a crunchier watermelon with a longer shelf life,” he said.
The watermelon program is overseen by Dr. Carlos Lazcano, who travels to various production areas to check on trial plots and find the best product. J&D ships watermelons year round, with production coming out of Mexico starting in January before the deal moves to Texas in late-April, followed by Georgia, New Jersey and New Mexico.
“Like our other commodities, we are pursuing personal watermelon 12 months a year,” said Mr. Bassetti. “I feel like that has tremendous potential, and we have a couple of nice tiger stripe varieties that are doing really well for us. It definitely has a niche in the industry.
“At first I thought they would only work in the winter when the larger melons were not as abundant and higher-priced,” he ccontinued. “But we’re seeing that there will always be customers for the personal melons. They have a different flavor and texture, and some people prefer them to cut down on waste or save room in the refrigerator. We’re still seeing an upward trend on the personal melons, and it has become a signature item for us.”
Like most other quality-conscious companies, food safety is a large focus at J&D Produce, and Mr. Bassetti said that he works hard to keep up with the latest developments. The company’s New Mexico fields and packinghouse just earned GFSI certification, and he expects to achieve that at his Texas operations by the end of the year.
“Food safety has always been in the forefront at J&D, and we have always been proactive about it,” he said. “The biggest challenge is the paperwork and getting our employees acclimated into the system. But we have the right people in the right places to achieve that.”
Additionally, he said that the company is on track with its traceability program, and currently it is in place at the package level.
While J&D Produce has continued to grow since it inception 25 years ago, Mr. Bassetti admits that the last three years have been challenging in the face of a down economy.
“We’ve been streamlining a little, phasing out less-profitable items and focusing more on the more profitable ones,” he said. “Additionally, labor has been a real challenge, and there were times when we did not have enough labor to harvest all our product. Our government officials really need to step up to the plate and develop a comprehensive program to allow people to work who want to work.
“I have also been seeing buying habits change a bit,” he continued. “We need to become more efficient and productive because production costs are going up.
“There doesn’t seem to be a place for average product anymore,” he said. “You need something special to stand out, and you need to stay focused on quality. That is something that my father instilled in us. When you see ‘Little Bear’ on the label, you know it means consistent quality, with shelf life a true hidden value. Retailers, wholesalers and consumers can count on our product being the best quality. We have gone through painstaking measures to make sure of that.”